That Day in 2003
I was on a walk when my partner at the time called to tell me that the US had invaded Iraq and that they were looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Across the phone line and across the border, he being in Canada, we were quiet together and taking in the hugeness of the news.
The next morning, I tried to explain to my children what was going on, as I knew they would hear about it in school. I wanted them to have a storyline that they could relate to, something kid-size, manageable.
We talked about a scenario where "someone had heard that they were hiding something dangerous in their rooms" and that even though they were saying that no, they weren't, that person had decided to break down the door and start rummaging through their stuff to find it. Under the bed, in drawers, everywhere. It would maybe make a mess, it would maybe make them mad, but the search would go on.
That's all I had at the time and I was hoping it would be enough. I tried to keep it neutral, relatable, away from the knot in my stomach that told me that a lot of heartaches were about to take place as the search was underway. I also tried to keep to myself the hunch that there was nothing to hide in that bedroom and that much blood and tears could be for nothing.
The day passed. I picked up the kids from school, not much was said about it and we all went to bed.
That night I had heard that France had refused to partake in the invasion and already French fries were being renamed Freedom Fries. I wondered if French kissing would get a new moniker, while the knot in my stomach got tighter.
The next morning I woke up and noticed that my neighbor had a new sticker on his truck that said "Piss on France." The knot turned into an all-body chill.
While my kids were in school, I made a decision: I would, after twenty years of living in the United States as a legal resident, apply for US citizenship.
That sticker had made me feel vulnerable, threatened. It had made me aware of my precarious status in a country where my heart now lived, divided into three little bodies. In hindsight, I think it woke up my DNA and its memory of having to flee, over and over again. It scared the s*** out of me.
Really, I could have applied for US citizenship years before and it hurts me to say that doing so would have given my dad so much joy - which is why I had refused. It was my cheap act of rebellion, my misguided statement against him having moved me from France unwillingly. I just would not give him that satisfaction.
And I didn't.
When my dad died in 1999, I was still proudly hanging on to my green card, my ego's immature mark of an independence I had not had the gut to assert when I was 17. I am not proud of this.
But that day, that July day, my ego had nothing to say about independence while I knew for sure I needed to do whatever I could to earn the same legal status as my children.
I went to work on this with a determination that felt almost physical, a knowing that no amount of paperwork would get in my way.
A few months later, my two older children and I stood in Seattle, in a huge room full of people reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in multiple, colorful accents.
I had become a US citizen, just like my children. All four of us allowed to be together in the same country no matter who pissed on who and no matter what kind of fries McDonald's served.
Afterward, the three of us went out and ate Thai food and it was another few months before it was officially acknowledged that nope, there was really nothing under the bed nor in the drawers, and that indeed, a mess had been made and hearts had been broken.
Years later, I would insist (possibly nag and beg) that my children apply for and maintain their French passports.
I Might Lose a Few Friends
It's likely that this post is not going to make me new friends - and very possible that it will lose me a few.
Before I empty this soup that's been stewing in my mind for the last week, I want to say that I know very little about politics. Therefore I am not about to write a political essay. I am going to write a human one.
In the last week, I have received worried messages from friends asking me if I was okay. The concern came following the much-publicized news of four Americans having been abducted in Mexico, two of them killed.
I confirmed that I was okay, and read the reports.
Four Americans went across the Texas border into Metamoros, a city known for its criminal activity, and were kidnapped and shot at. There is still a bit of vagueness about what exactly happened but the result is that three people died and two were injured - and of course, traumatized. Many accounts followed about how close the four friends were, what good people they were.
Very little mention was made of the Mexican lady who also died, as she happened to be standing there when the gunshots started. My guess is she was a good person also.
That's terrible all around and nothing is going to ever make it okay for any of the five people or their families.
Next enters a bunch of "optics:"
Some Mexican crime organization turns over some suspects and writes a letter of apology. Standard.
Then the United States government vows "to be relentless in pursuit of justice for the four Americans who came under attack."
That part bugs me.
Relentless. Ok, how relentless? How much energy is the government ready to give this?
Sure, we don't want our fellow humans (Americans included) to be killed, and when that happens we are likely to become enraged and motivated to take action.
But why such a loud volume about this situation in particular?
According to USA Today, more than 6000 children and teenagers were injured or killed in 2022 at the hands (and guns) of mostly an American person. Now, these children were NOT willingly crossing the border into a known dangerous area - they were either going to school or attending a public event. SIX THOUSAND. At home. That's just the kids. I am yet to see any relentless commitment being made to prevent this from happening over and over again.
Then, a couple of days ago, I listened to Siamak Namazi talk about how he has been held hostage in Teheran in horrific conditions (because it turns out that hostages get treated way worse than prisoners) for more than 7 years. He is American. He has done nothing "not even jaywalking," as he recounts. He is the longest-held hostage, and from where he stands, not one person in the government is paying him any attention. No one has visited his family. No one is being relentless about this.
And just because I'm on a roll, I want to mention that a couple of months ago, in the village where I live, an American MMA fighter with a modicum of fame killed his Mexican girlfriend. Did YOU hear much about this? Did you hear about this American who took the life of a beautiful Mexican woman in a hotel room? Probably not. She too was a good person with very close friends.
Why? Why so much focus on Mexico being a terrible, dangerous, very bad place?
I don't have an answer and even my guess is not worth much.
But it sure is something to think about. Possibly relentlessly.
The first time I saw it, I was in Haiti, the summer before I turned 16.
It was living at the home of a friend of my parents, an art collector, I believe. I saw it, and before I asked if I could have it - or before it was offered to me, I can't remember - I knew it was mine. I don't usually go around asking people for their stuff so I am not sure how it all happened but I do remember the clarity with which I knew that it was mine.
Huge, colorful, simple, not very technically precise (we are still not sure whether the balcony curves in or out) I carried it with me on the plane back to France, rolled up all nice and tidy.
There, I asked my dad if we could get it framed. When the man at the frame shop told him that "it was made of such cheap paint brushed on a rough flour bag that it would fall off the frame within months," my dad told him to go ahead and mount it on wood and then to please frame it with a really nice black shiny metal frame.
My dad had reported the conversation to me as he handed me my treasure, bright and oh-so lovely. "So I told the guy: my daughter says she wants it framed, we're gonna frame it."
Most of the time my dad had no idea what I wanted and so this was a big deal to me. In that moment, I fell in love three shades deeper with the inconveniently large happy Painting
There was something in his voice I hadn't heard before. I heard it just once more many years later as he lay dying in a hospital bed. We both knew that we only had a few last minutes to spend together before I had to catch a plane. The nurse wanted to bathe him at this exact moment and with some amount of morphine in his bloodstream, my dad had reached under his thin gown for an imaginary 500 dollar bill bribing her to leave us alone. She had walked away in a huff and I got to hear my dad tell me what mattered most in life.
I got those few precious minutes, just as I had gotten the black shiny frame.
Not many things followed me from France to the US, a couple of years later. It was an odd move and my opinions were not much part of the process. But it did join me, and for a few years, it hung in my shiny new bedroom in South Florida, in a world of sunshine, palm trees, and candy-colored fruits to match its bright pink shutters.
For the next five years, I roamed around in search of my adult self as The Painting stayed at my parents' home.
On an impulse, I had followed a boy to Chicago, then to Seattle. When it became clear that we had no business sharing life together, I grabbed my professional makeup kit and boarded a plane to Hawaii - where to my surprise he was waiting for me. It took a while to de-entangle our lives (never my specialty, I'm much better at the entanglement part) and when we finally did, I ran headlong into my children's dad. A couple of years later he and I picked up The Painting at my parents' home and brought it to live with us in our pine-walled chalet in the middle of the Cascades. Its colors looked even warmer than they had before as if the falling snow outside begged it to turn up its own heat.
From that day on, it remained the silent, grounding, cheerful, and ever-present witness to our days and nights.
In the small mountain village, it shared the space with a whole bunch of dogs and cats, teenagers, and two young adults learning to live as a married couple - while attempting to parent humans barely a few years younger.
Moving to the island, it took a respectful amount of room in the sweet single-wide trailer which was our home for six years. There it accompanied us as we got pregnant three times, the first time losing the baby in a heartbreak I wasn't sure I would survive. It watched us learn to raise goats, grow and sell herbs, start a luscious French bakery, and eventually bring two beautiful babies into the world.
I love knowing that The Painting is one of all of my three children's first visuals, so happy and magical.
Many homes followed and it followed us in many homes, always one of the first things to hang on the wall. This gesture meant: we're staying a while.
It quietly watched the arrival of our precious third baby, the fraying of our marriage, and then became the ever-present witness of The Challenging Years. Which were also often, The Delicious Years. Twenty of them. Eight different homes. Eight different walls.
It stayed up with me nights as I wondered how I would make the rent. It shone a little brighter as I studied and studied to gain enough confidence to call myself a life coach. It beamed calm down at me when I had to make the choice to let go of one baby in order to care for my other three. It smiled through many, many Christmases and birthdays and watched us pack for adventures and come home from road trips and do homework and make hundreds of crepes and adopt our new furry family members and make stuff, and cook and ... LIVE.
Eventually, I was able to buy the most adorable little 1930s cottage and The Painting seemed very happy there, watching family, friends, and animals come in and out.
On a summer afternoon years ago, The Painting stood above all of us as we piled on a big floor heap, our faces buried in our beloved Roxy's fur when we knew it was time to release her from a body that could no longer serve her. The Painting held us.
When I left for Mexico, two years ago, it stayed in my little cottage and when I felt a bit lonely down here, I loved knowing that it was there.
Returning to the U.S. and starting the work of selling the cottage last summer, I knew that I would part with most of my things. But certainly not with The Painting.
There was no way to bring it with me unless I was able to drive it down. Which I wasn't. Also, it felt like maybe more of a commitment than I was ready to make. Would I really like living alone at the edge of the jungle?
It was one of the last things I took out of the house, knowing it could be a long while before we shared a home again. When I did, I talked to it and when I gently placed it in the storage unit, my heart squeezed as though I was abandoning a friend. I placed its colorful, painted side against the sterile wall of the storage unit, telling myself the paint would be safer this way. Really, I couldn't bear to have it watch me walk away and clink shut the heavy metal door.
A couple of days later, I received a message from a friend who had been at my home earlier in the week. "I was wondering about The Painting," she said. In a nutshell, a combination of her art-knowing eye and well-tuned heart made her ask me if I would like her to keep The Painting at her home, for now.
"It will be in a temperature-controlled environment" she said.
"It might be loved," I heard.
I was grateful for her kindness and even though I didn't have the strength to see photos of The Painting in her house, I was so very happy when she assured me that her family loved it and would take great care of it until I was ready to reunite with it.
Back in Mexico, things moved ... the way things move down here. Very slowly and head-spinningly fast.
A hurricane, more construction, some de-construction too. Making a house into a home, getting to know it, wondering what the heck I had done, falling in love with it a little bit, and wondering some more.
And The Big Space on the Wall.
Nothing seemed to want to go there. I tried. Nothing worked. No map, no tapestry, no bookshelf.
So it stayed. A Big Space on the Wall with not much to say.
Until about a month ago.
A month ago, as I was cooking, I looked up and saw The Painting there. It stopped me in my tracks. Of course, it wasn't there but also - it was. I could see it, I could feel it and I had this funny thing inside of me that said that "things were in motion."
It happened several more times over the next week. I saw it. I felt it. It was here. But it was not.
I knew that it was time to "Pray While I Moved my Feet" and so move my feet I did.
I called my friend who had The Painting and offered to pay part of her airfare if she could bring it down with her. When that didn't work, I talked with my other friend who was on her way down to visit me soon, and learned that even if she was willing, The Painting was 5" too large to go in the plane's cargo space.
That last piece of information left me feeling a bit defeated. If it couldn't fly... how would it ever get here?
Telling my friend how bummed I was about this, somehow sparked her own magic. She said: "Wait! My boyfriend's parents make the drive from the island to Mexico all the time! Maye next time they come down they could bring it?" Before I could even start to feel hopeful again, she continued: "Oh........ wait!!!!!! You know what? I think they are leaving tomorrow! On their way down!" Then she said: "Hang on, I'll call you back."
I was standing in a grocery store looking for cream, and my knees buckled a little. So fast. Could it really be?
Minutes later she called me back and said that if we could get the painting to them tonight, they would bring it down. Did I think we could do it?
HECK YEAH, I thought we could do it!
Next call was to The Painting's foster mama to see if she too, could move this fast. She picked up the phone, told me that she had just been thinking about me, and gave me a generous YES, we could do it.
The next few hours saw The Painting being gently plucked off its lovely foster home, wrapped in brown paper, then bubble wrap, then cardboard layers - and then in the dark, delivered to the back of a Mexico-bound van.
Photos were sent to me along the way and I watched in disbelief.
Two weeks ago, I drove to the gas station a few minutes from my house where four kind people whom I had never met handed me The Painting. They had driven six hours out of their way to deliver it to me, after taking it down the coast, across the border, and down the coast again. They accepted no gas money, smiled when I handed them a much smaller painting of a Heart that I had made, and went back on their way.
I took the huge package home, talking to it the whole time. When I peeled off its many layers and saw its bright colors, I sobbed some sobs I didn't know were in me.
Suddenly my dad was here with me, my babies, my losses, my celebrations, my many lives, too. A new part of me had made it here.
I could see the little cracks in the paint and prayed to the God of Humidity to please please leave it alone.
I told it I Love You many many times. Each time I did, I was saying I love you to people, to animals, to homes, and to this big life that I have been lucky to live.
Having it here with me has changed my home. Or rather, it has changed me. It brought me a big helping of "making sense," which I needed.
I am so freaking grateful and I pre-celebrate all the new faces, meals, places, and adventures we are going to live together.
Never forgetting the ones that came before.
Here's to the glorious, sacred tapestry of our life, woven one thread at a time. One brushstroke at a time.
And here's to knowing when to not listen to the experts and to instead go for the nice shiny black frame.