A year ago today, this happened.
My life was placed into 82 boxes, all taped and bound, slapped with a sticker labeled: "Ibu Erin to New York."
Ibu Erin, to New York.
Ibu, the Balinese title for a woman, akin to Ms. in the states, became a small word with big meaning.
"Ibu!!!" said warmly, dripping with love, was the word I heard over and over again in my Balinese classroom.
"Ibu!" shouted across the garden as a greeting, by my beloved gardner, eager to show me the plant newly placed in the ground, or the orchid bud just opening.
"Ibuuuuuu..." followed by a warm hug and ingratiating smile, was the greeting I received from the woman whom I came to see as my life partner, my son's second mother, and the keeper of my home.
Ibu, a word that made me feel connected, tethered to Balinese ways, rooted to the island which changed my life.
When I first arrived on Bali, I was told that the island would chew me up and spit me out again and again, until I arrived at the person I was meant to be. The eternal soul polisher, Bali, I was told, would demand that I become the best version of myself. Do that, she did. Over and over again, for two years.
Not dealing with the past? HA! Not living a healthy lifestyle? HAHAHA! Allowing fear to control you? HAHAHAHA! Disconnected from the natural world? Not present in the moment? Not connecting with others? HAAAAAAAAHHHHAAAAAAAAHHHHAAAA!
When you are willing to do the work, Bali will reward you as well. With the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets, deep spiritual practice, opportunity to gather and be connected, astounding natural vistas, alternative healing practices, incredible art, and opportunity after opportunity to discover new things about the world, and who you are within it. Whatever it was that I needed in the moment, Bali provided, especially if what I needed was a good kick in the ass. Bali allowed me the opportunity to blossom, and I liked what I was seeing. But was this all transferrable?
Could "Ibu Erin" be taken to New York and thrive, or would New York, the yang to Bali's yin, whittle her away into a hard city girl?
This is a question I have been asking myself over and over again for the last year.
New York, like Bali, is an island that can chew you up and spit you out. Alive and filled with an energetic pulse, this city can drag you through the mud, run you over, and leave you in the gutter, if you allow it to. It can also be the place where opportunity is endless, and where dreams come true. New York doesn't care one way or the other which way you go, but it will certainly help you along whichever way you chose.
From the moment my 82 boxes landed in the New York harbor, my life has been on hyper-drive, trying to set up home, settle in at a new school, acclimatize my son, reconnect with old friends and attempt to kindle new ones, learn how to be a single-mom singularly, all while going through one of the worst cases of culture shock I had ever known. (They say reverse culture shock is harder than entering a new country. They are right.) Oh, and let us not forget the winter. WINTER. WAS. CRUEL. And the commute. That gosh-darn-awful-evil-commute should not go without mention.
The re-entry to American culture took me by such a storm that I couldn't even find my voice to write about it. When I tried to talk about it with others, I found that either they couldn't relate, or worse, I would just start to cry, because I didn't know the words, just the overwhelming emotions.
In need of a way out or above, maybe even just through, I finally decided to live as if I were a tourist so that I could possibly hover above it all. And so I became an expat in my own country. As much as one can, at least. With my Global citizen mentality and NY baby eyes, I was better able to see the beauty. My camera enabled me to "capture the wow," and I felt myself begin to rise above the fray.
Rising, again, and again each day, I remind myself to try to stay there. To dig deep and yank out the best version of myself that I can find. I've failed on many occasions, and in the process, I've been confronted with some of the worst parts of myself, as well. Fear, ego, exhaustion... They've all crept in and invited me to sit and stay awhile, to take up residency in a darker, though possibly easier, place. Bali, however, won't allow me to. The part of that island which took up residency in my heart consistently finds a way to remind me of my course. Along the way, I've developed some practices that help me to ensure that "Ibu Erin" continues to flourish. In the coming weeks, I'll share them with you.
For now, though, in this state of the union address, I am pleased to report that we are finding our way. Edem and I still deeply miss Bali. In many ways, we still feel like foreigners here in New York, but the reality is, we may always feel that way in each land in which we live, and that is ok. I am learning, and I believe he is as well, that wherever we go, we will be able to make a home. We will be able to thrive. We will find and nurture community, and we will be looked after, as well. I know, deeply within, that I will always have the opportunity and needed support to discover the best version of myself, whether I am in Bali, New York or Timbuktu.
Looking around my space, seeing the treasures from around the world, Bali life mixed comfortably in this New York home, I can say that we safely arrived. 365 days later, Ibu Erin made it to New York, and here, she thrives.
Union Square: Rising from the belly of the subway station, my heart leapt, and then ached as my ears took in the sounds I associate with Bali.
Boom-diddy-boom-diddy-booom on the leather top, rhythm clattering from the Kartals, and the familiar exhale of the accordion. A Kirtan.
Muscle memory took over; my body swayed and my mouth released the chants that I heard so many times on the beaches of Bali. "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna...."
The leader of the group stood and stared, a slow smile creeping out.
"Where did you learn to hold your fingers as such? How do you know these songs so well?"
"Bali taught me," I replied.
"Ahhhh, so this is why you can linger and not rush like a New Yorker."
And so opened a long conversation about the constant rush to get nowhere, ending with encouragement to savor life. This small moment seemed to be a collaborative gift from Bali and New York, my yin and yang. A gesture as if to say: you may love us both. A reminder that the places and people who have shaped us never leave our heart.
I fell out of Love with NY once. And so I went away, to Ghana. And thought, every day, of NY. And then I went to Korea. And Togo. Bali too. Everywhere I went, I thought of NY. Every time I came home to visit my old lover, people stopped me on the streets and in the subway to tell me that I looked so happy. Radiant, I believe, is the word that they used. Policemen welcomed me HOME. Bartenders bought me drinks. Taxi drivers turned off their meters. Clearly, the city was seducing me.
And so I decided it was time to give this love another chance.
It's comforting to know that some loves will give you the space to stretch and grow, explore who you are, experience other lovers, and still welcome you in with open arms.
New York is a different city now; I am a different girl. And still, I have fallen in love all over again. Just like this post says I would.
Bath. Book. Bed. And sometimes questions. Little ones, like:
"Can we take Sammy to the park tomorrow?" (Referring to his stuffed dog.)
"Can I have a sleepover?"
"Can I have a dog?"
I wasn't expecting this next question, and yet, it is one I have awaited since he was born. From the tone is his voice, I could tell it was one he had been waiting to ask.
"Mom, it's important. I need to ask you something."
"Mommy, did someone else borned me and then you agreed to take care of me?"
"No honey. I earned you (his term) all on my own. Why do you ask?"
"Well then, why don't I look like you? Why is my skin different colors than you? Some people say you didn't earn me."
I've heard it as well. The questions about adoption.
His eyes turned away from me, down, and to the opposite wall.
"No, sweety, you do look like me. Your skin is different because your daddy is dark and your mommy is light and when we mixed, we made you. But you have my eyes! You have my hands. Edem, you have my heart."
And there it was, his smile. His sweet, sweet smile. And his eyes, locked on mine.
"I do have your heart. God gave us this heart."
"Mommy, why are some people different colors?"
"Well, they are different colors because they originate from different parts of the world, with different sun exposure and different---- Honey, people are different colors because that is how God designed us. To be colorful and beautiful and interesting. Everything the same wouldn't be as wonderful."
Hug. A tight one.
"Good night, Mom. "
"Good night, my handsome one."
"Mommy, God is smart. And an artist."
I'm hanging out over at Yeah Write again. Stop by to read the work of some fabulous writers who blog.
Beyond the muck and mire... Grateful I'm able to see the beauty. I've often said that I have guardian angels who work overtime. Last night, they definitely stepped in on behalf of my son and I. We were at the 2nd and Delancey stop, rushing down the stairs to catch our approaching train. Just as we hit the last step, there was a scream and a man turned to see Edem and I. His face twisted into an expression I've never before seen, blurred only by the speed with which he jumped in front of Edem, blocking my son from witnessing the scene before us. A man had just leapt to his demise. What followed felt like our planet slowed on its axis, paused by the daze of knowing that the world lost a soul. Slowly, the dense silent air was filled with sirens, and we commuters tried to regain balance and find our way home. All of us no doubt wondering how it is that someone could be so lost in grief that this seemed like a reasonable solution. This was someone's child, I couldn't stop thinking, as I ushered my son away into the cold dark night. This was someone's child.
Rounding the corner, my rush to catch the train was halted by the flamenco notes drifting in the air. Arresting, alluring, they flirted with my sensibilities and encouraged me to linger. The creator's appearance belied what the tune suggested I might find. His hands, marked with the lines of memories from many lives lived, found their youth with the task of creating such beauty, his twinkling eyes a reminder that a lively soul held residency in this aging shell. Not much slows me in my maddening commute. Music... It holds the magical ability to freeze time for both the creator and consumer
Each morning, during my morning commute, this sight takes my breath away. I have a moment of "WOW," and I look around, excited to share this divine view with others. More often than not, my fellow travelers have their heads down, minds turned to other things. I wonder how to get them to lift their eyes, just for a moment, to see what is right in front of them.
This year, in the days leading up to Christmas, my son was busy drawing cards for others and making presents for his stuffed animals. His Christmas list was pretty tiny: a red scooter from Santa, a train from the movie he loves, a book from the series he loves, and a puzzle that showed the world. His list for his friends and stuffed animals was far longer.
When Santa asked him what he wanted for Christmas, Edem replied: a red scooter. Santa said: What else? Isn't there more? Edem's response: That's all I want from you. If you have extra, can you give it to the kids without anything?
On Christmas morning, Edem was thrilled with the few things that he had, and in the last twenty-four hours, I have had many thank you hugs.
He wasn't always that way.
In this old post, I talked about the five-year-old Edem’s immediate response on Christmas morning, the one many parents have experienced where their child just asks for more, MORE, MORE! The response leaves most of us feeling, well... crappy, for a number of reasons, most of which come down to feeling as though we have failed.
We want our children to be happy. At Christmas, those who celebrate the holiday American style spend weeks looking for the right gifts, some even break the bank to get their child as much as possible. When our children open their gifts, and then, sitting in a pile of plenty, moan for more, we feel like we haven’t done well enough. Maybe we didn’t choose the right gift; maybe we didn’t get enough; maybe we failed our children on a day when they are meant to be showered with gifts and left glowing in happiness. Failure #1: We let our children down.
We want our children to be well mannered and grateful. Opening a pile of gifts and then complaining for more doesn’t resemble a well-mannered grateful child; it resembles a spoiled little br—ahem—munchkin who shows little gratitude for our hard efforts. So, there’s failure #2:We aren’t raising our children to behave as we think they should; instead, we are raising spoiled brats.
We want Christmas to be about more than the gifts. Having spent the majority of my last ten Christmases in the developing world, I had the opportunity to be away from the consumerist version of Christmas that has overtaken the western world. Christmas was about people coming together, honoring the birth of Jesus, and celebrating God’s amazing gift to the world: his son. The fun tradition of gift giving in honor of this day was tertiary. So when my son got caught up in the gifts, and was upset that he didn’t have enough, when in fact he had way more than enough, I felt that I failed to make the reason for the season clear. Failure #3: We have diminished the meaning of Christmas.
If you are still dealing with these crappy feelings brought on by your lil’ ones reaction to Christmas, know that you aren’t alone, and that you aren’t a failure. These responses from young children are pretty common, but we don’t have to indulge them. Just as we intervene on their tantrums when in the terrible twos, we can intervene on, and condition away, the ungrateful gimmes.
Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of adults out there who never had this conditioning.
When I woke up this morning to hear the headline news that UPS failed to get packages to people on time, thus “ruining Christmas for hundreds of people,” I thought: maybe we, as a collective society, have failed the season. When grown adults take on the behavior that my five-year-old once exhibited, throwing tantrums over not having stuff on Christmas day, crying and sending out belligerent E-mails and tweets, I had to wonder where we have all gone wrong. The very fact that this was a headline news story, placed over the thousands of other newsworthy events happening in the world, made me cringe, and think that we may need to step back and gain a little bit of a broader perspective.
Is it frustrating that a company didn’t deliver on time? Sure… Is it disappointing that the gift someone clearly ordered last minute didn’t make it to the appropriate recipient? Sure! Is it the end of the world? Is it enough to spoil the day that is meant to celebrate the birth of the Christian Savior? I would hope not…
For me, I believe that everything happens for a reason; perhaps the weather storms that delayed the trucks were just a bit of Divine intervention. God’s way of saying: “Hey, remember Us?” Maybe we are supposed to learn that we can show our love without the things bought online. Going by the response of people who had delayed gifts, I have to say that many people missed these possible lessons.
I have hope for us that we can step back and reflect on how we show our love, that maybe we don’t need more, MORE, MORE, and that love doesn’t need to be wrapped in a box to be convincing. I have hope that we can still find our way back to the reason for the season. If Scrooge and the Grinch can discover the Christmas spirit, I think we can, too.
Letting go and moving on from something can be scary. For me, letting go can be challenging because I know that the starting over is absolutely daunting.
Starting over has been a challenge because I somehow crafted this idea that a start-over had to be far better than the other thing. I had learned from that previous experience, right? So this time I had to do it better. It could be anything I was embarking upon. ANYTHING. But in this story, the "it" is my blog.
For 3 years, I kept a blog on a site called Posterous. I was inspired to start the blog by a friend who constantly encourages me to stretch my creative wings. At first, the site was just a personal "inspirational filing cabinet" where I kept images, videos, and ideas that inspired me, and sometimes, I wrote about events that touched me in some way. Over time, the site became more of a personal journal, where I processed what I was experiencing. I found myself slowly lifting my walls, opening up and sharing who I am with the cyber world. For me, it became therapeutic.
My blog chronicled my journey through-it. Through divorce (though I never really wrote much about that topic directly, it was during that time that I started to keep the online journal.) Through moves across the globe (Korea to Togo, Togo to Bali.) Through finding myself. Through letting go of who I thought I ought to be so that I could become who I was meant to be.
I didn't really think anyone would want to read about my personal musings, but surprisingly, people did. I started to get emails from people, some of whom I have never met, to let me know how much my blog was impacting them. It seemed that the more I opened up, the more others saw themselves in my experiences and felt open to share what they were going through. Or maybe I helped them to see the world through a different perspective, to recognize beauty in a moment that they may not have otherwise noticed.
As I became more and more active in the blog-o-sphere, I started to go through the challenge of staying true to my voice when I know that I have an audience. I started to worry about what others wanted to hear, I started to think more and more about the look of my blog, and I even gave (too much) thought to the "branding" of my blog. Am I a mommy-blogger, self-help-blogger, happiness- blogger, artist-blogger teacher blogger... 'Who am I," I recall asking a friend, "in the blog-o-sphere, and how do I grow my audience?"
Just as those questions started to arise, and anxiety about the structure and appearance of my blog grew, the host of my blog was bought out and shortly after, closed down. No more of my beloved Posterous...
The timing was both perfect and horrible: I was in the middle of preparing for a move from Bali to New York. My head was on constant spinning status as I balanced letting go of Bali, working full time, serving as a Mama to Edem, girlfriend to someone other, preparing for my TEDx talk, all while fulfilling the freelance writing obligations I had taken on. To say that I was overwhelmed was an understatement. And so my personal blog was put on hold.
Then I was frozen with indecision: what should this new blog look like? The question paralleled me asking: What should my new life look like? You see, I wanted to perfectly construct both. Here's the thing: we can't perfectly construct anything. Life is amazingly messy, and it is most amazing when we let go and just be who we are. When we open our hearts, try our best, and dare to be vulnerable and real. It's scary. It's at times overwhelming. But I've learned that it is really the only way to do it.
So, here is my new blog. Simple. Unbranded. Unnamed. Charmingly organic. (Oooh! is there a blog name there? Ahem.) It's just me. Living my life, learning along the way, and loving every minute of it.
If you enjoy it, fabulous. If not, that's ok, too.
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 13th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world Theater and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo, Bali, and US have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Switzerland home.