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Growth and Gratitude

13 August 2021 – Friday the 13th

A Friday Morning Gratitude Practice – unintentionally

This picture. Can you see the way that the sun streams down askance in long, straight pillars through Sandia’s ridges? This image is why I am writing this morning – why the words will not stay inside but must come out.

As the kids and I drove out toward school this morning, we chortled about Sandia’s misty toupee, noting that this is the first clear morning we’ve had since we returned home from vacation. Sunrises over Sandia are breathtaking! Further up the road, we started counting hot air balloons lifting off the ground out west over the parts of town already sunlit because they lay outside of Sandia’s shadow (we see balloons regularly every morning, these days): one, two… “SIX, mom! The one in the middle, if you’re not looking straight at it, you can’t even see it. It’s an optical illusion” said one sweet child or the other.

After school drop-off, as I sat, pondering, at a red light, it dawned on me: morning drop-offs here are so much lighter, brighter, and more joyous than those in Madrid. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment when my narrative of this morning’s routine is fulfilled.

Turning east after that light, I could do nothing but swerve all over the three-lane highway, knee poorly commanding the wheel, while I snagged this photo of Sandia through the windshield. Yes, I captured this photo while driving – through my windshield. If this is the best I could do under those circumstances, dear reader, can you even imagine how it looked in person? Breathtaking.

The drive homeward is long. The kids’ school is all the way across town, a compromise we willingly accepted. It’s a compromise that temporarily falls upon my shoulders – but I don’t mind. Long drives provide space for so much thought. When Lexi joins me, it also provides quality ear scratch time and so much fluffy love, love, love.

At the gate, the guard peered in at me with alert but yearning crystal blue eyes over his nondescript black cotton mask. He hesitated for a beat then said, “Oh, I really wanna pet your dog, ma’am.” My heart melted.

“Aww, she would love that,” I said, thinking about the pile of cars behind me and the fact that it was a lie: Lexi is too anxious to appreciate pats from strangers. Yet to negate his desire, even simply in words, would be to tarnish this perfect morning and put a damper on his sweet soul.

“Have a great day,” he said, waving me forward.

I beamed at him. “You too,” I said, and drove away.


Let’s talk about headspace, now.

Clearly, this morning’s headspace was bright, light, open, airy, liberated…it was hopeful and high – uplifting.

There was so much, today, for which to be deeply and unequivocally grateful.

The thought that struck me at that red light was this: morning drop-offs in Madrid were quite the opposite for various reasons, even though the Guadarramas were also visible on those drives. So whence, precisely, stems the difference? Was it physical limitations – was it Madrid itself and the characteristics of that drive? Or was it headspace alone that made the distinction?

The truth is, it was both. My gosh, it was a lot, but it definitely was the drives…

Now that you have a snapshot of drop-offs here, let me describe Madrid for comparison.

Just as here, whenever I’d drive the kids to school in Madrid, I’d haul along Lexi. She really does love a good car ride when it doesn’t entail being dropped at the vet or a kennel. As drop-off car rides go, though, that was about the only similarity between these two.

Our suburb of La Moraleja in Madrid was often referred to as the Beverly Hills of Madrid. It was full of very rich people, including soccer stars (like Luka Modrić, who once sat at the table beside me at Cappuccino in the Plaza), movie stars, foreign nationals, etc. I don’t say this to name drop. I say this to illustrate a point: homes and estates in La Moraleja were protected by high gates and surrounded by impenetrable privacy walls. Part of this is that rich people prefer their privacy; another reason for this goes back to tradition: Islamic gardens. Because Spain’s history is so rich in Islamic culture, they develop these intricate, floral inner gardens with fountains within their private spaces. These gardens are meant to be completely invisible to the outside world. Guests would only have access to these gardens if they were friends, family, or intimate relations. Sometimes, deep within cities, they are found in homes as central courtyards beyond the grand entryway – open to the sky and full of fresh green. Out in La Moraleja, given the vast spaces available, they can be larger – yet they are always, always walled for privacy.

So, for someone dropping their kids off to school in the morning, what does this mean? This means that each estate’s privacy walls come all the way out to the roads – walling out the public eye. This means that every single drive along my route to the school was essentially walled in. You could not see – anything – but the road before you and the road behind you. Walls, walls, everywhere walls! Brick walls, living walls, wooden walls, metal walls – so many walls!

I’d drive and drive and drive but felt as though I could never get anywhere because I was perpetually walled in.

When we lived in Germany, as a child, I was playing with my sister and cousins in the attic with some old moving boxes. We’d crawl into and out of them as forts. We’d climb into them and close them up around ourselves, then let the other children roll the boxes around. Once, I climbed in and closed my lid and my sister and cousins rolled the box over onto its opening. Inside the box, I was sitting upon the opening, my weight preventing my own escape. I was trapped.

Recognizing this, I panicked.

The walls of the box warped and shrank, and the space collapsed upon me. My eyes saw sharp flashes and my ears roared. I banged the walls, screamed, heaved for breath. My head pounded and my cheeks burned. My chest crushed in a vice. The terror translated into desperate, life-or-death shrieks.

Within seconds, my playmates rolled the box again and I fell out onto the concrete floor, gasping for air, face saturated with snot and tears.

Melodrama? Was it really this way, or is it just how I want to remember it? Who cares, really? The point is this: my anxiety lends itself naturally to claustrophobia.

Driving the streets of La Moraleja, winding my way in a giant Z from our home to the kids’ school while completely walled in on all sides, was like being trapped in that box twice a day every day.

As if it ended there, right? One day, when dropping Keira off for a birthday party at the Vertical Park in Plenilunio mall, it hit me even harder.

That Saturday afternoon, we were already running late for the birthday party when I pulled up to the mall. So often, friends had explained to me the necessity of parking two blocks over so that the mall’s parking congestion could be avoided. But we were so late! How long would it take to walk? It seemed wiser to park at the mall this time instead, to save time. What a tragic mistake, that decision.

On a Saturday afternoon, most of la Comunidad de Madrid shops at Plenilunio, it turns out, and because the centro commercial is somewhat suburban, apparently no one takes advantage of public transit: the underground parking garage that day was slammed.

Once my 2002 Madrid-kissed BMW 330d had cleared the entranceway curve into the garage, the situation laid itself bare. Imagine, cars idling upon every square inch of driveable surface. Further, rows upon rows of parking spots – all full. The red/green lights hovering above each potential parking space glowed angry red. Red, red, red, red…as far as my eyes could see – and there was no movement, whatsoever. People milled and weaved between idling and stationary vehicles, further frustrating any progress.

Within seconds of absorbing the white walls, roaring echoes of engines and angry horns, and the low seven-foot ceilings, something inside me began to collapse under the weight of that same closed cardboard box from my childhood. My car crept forward, utterly trapped within a herd of vehicles. Even if I’d needed to simply escape, I could not – there was nowhere for my car to go.

I started to hyperventilate with Keira next to me in the passenger seat. Tears welled, making hot red streaks out of the brake lights we trailed.

…and I dissociated…

I am completely unaware of how Keira reacted to that situation, and I don’t recall finding our parking spot that day. I do, however, recall that entering the mall was no improvement upon the situation.

As seconds ticked away on my watch, I knew that we were going to be later and later upon arrival at the Vertical Park, yet it seemed more and more people piled in front of us barring our route up the escalators up to the third floor. Inside the mall was at least as congested as the parking garage.

My lungs struggled to pull in air, hitching and heaving, releasing little mewling sobs, as we elbowed our way through hordes of people to the escalators.

…before long, I dissociated again…

Somehow, Keira made it to her party at the Vertical Park only 15 minutes late, but that was never destined to be the end of this story. Getting into the mall was only half of the ordeal and getting out could only escalate the psychosomatic response in my body, as the first half of this tragedy had already primed me for an intensified fight-or-flight response.

Leaving the mall that day had one distinct advantage over arriving, however: no time constraint. Although my lungs still heaved, my head still throbbed, all noises and lights were amplified, and I cannot recall anything but a giant blur, I was able to make it back through the herds to my car, then back through the parking dungeon out to the street – with tear-tracked cheeks and a tremor-racked body.

Alone inside the car, I leaned toward the steering wheel, sobbed, and attempted to capture my breath the rest of the way home. Once home, I begged and pleaded for Brian to pick Keira up after her party; I could not make that excursion again.

Time in Madrid was often characterized by moments of such claustrophobic panic.

Was it La Moraleja’s exclusive walls? Was it the impassable crowds – the congested people and vehicle traffic? Was it the smog that squatted heavy upon the city, which we could witness from our fourth-story’s ten-foot-tall glass doors? Was it that never-ceasing feeling of being straitjacketed by language barriers and unshared cultural norms?

Was it the emotional needs of 26 American NATO spouses who nearly all found themselves in the very same boat – needs with which I could only empathize, having experienced them myself so acutely? Was it the ponderous opinion of that one toxic spouse for whom I was never enough?

…or was it me?

The truth is, I can’t be sure. There was a lot wrong with the way I was living my life back then. At the time, my entire self-image was caught up in being everything to everyone, tirelessly solving others’ problems at the expense of my own inner peace. Moreover, my beliefs’ foundations were built upon faulty fictions, and those faults were shifting, breaking apart right underneath my feet, leaving me scrambling to catch hold of reality – a branch, a root, a rope, a helping hand – to prevent myself from tumbling into the obscure abyss.

But something – something – must be said for the vast fields and skies of farm country, North Dakota. It was there, driving kids to and from sports activities, that the weight upon my chest began to lift and the boxing-in walls fell away.

Something even importanter must be said for the crystal-pink granite mountains, blue skies, crisp white clouds, hot air balloons, and golden sun-kissed deserts of Albuquerque.

Here, for the very first time in my life, I have shucked all the pressures that once weighed me down, crushed my lungs, and boxed me in: my expectations of myself, others’ expectations of me, my fears, the fears of others, my defenses, my masks, my traumas, and my behavioral responses to those traumas. Here, for the very first time, it feels completely ok to let myself just be me. It feels enough to just be me.

So if you see me pausing to snap a pic, or if I appear to be lost in thought, just let me be. I’m counting my blessings and measuring my gratitude for this wonderful, wonderful life and all the magic it has held, holds, and will continue to hold for me.

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