Scarier Than Halloween

Hola y Queridos Todos:

If we knew how scary life can sometimes be, we might never want to experience anything. I have had my share of scary experiences, listed here in no particular order:

  • Climbing Mt. Fuji. I think I thought this climb was either going to be an elevator ride, a walk in the park, a day at the beach, or a little climb up a paved driveway — in other words, something akin to a cinch — so ill-informed was I. For two weeks after my climb (it rained, it snowed, it was sunny, it was hot, it was crazy), I suffered from a very sore body, wincing in pain each time I walked up or down Tokyo’s subway stairs.
  • Being 21, moving to Austin, and living at the “Y” for six months. I was afraid to break the lease because it would have cost me $15. The Y was a “dump,” a friend later informed me.
  • Both of my parents having brain tumors and dying. The worst and scariest thing ever.
  • Teaching for the first time, at 28 years old. What if I tripped and fell?
  • Flying into Singapore by myself. Michael Peter Fay, then 17, was the American who lived there and was caned a few months before I went. I visualized it: I’d be caned for chewing gum in the airport or anywhere (a major no-no, and somehow I was sure I’d wind up with a wad of it in my mouth, despite the fact that I rarely chew gum) or commit some other misdemeanor, and the police would high-tail it after me, and I’d wind up in Singapore’s prison system forever. I was sure I’d slip up somehow.
  • Singing for the first time on stage at open mike.
  • Gaining 35 pounds after having three foot surgeries…and not immediately losing the weight.
  • Renting a car and driving out to Algonquin, Illinois, for my first voice-over/acting job for Wal-Mart. I drive maybe once a year, so driving sometimes frightens me, and I had no idea where Algonquin was until I had to drive there. Also, my appointment was at 10:30 p.m., and I was trying to envision how light or dark the inside of Wal-Mart would be at that time, as well as the guy I was supposed to work with.
  • All of the research and editing involved in writing my thesis. Although the process was very interesting and I was graced with a fabulous thesis advisor/editor, slap me hard if I ever decide to get a Ph.D.
  • Driving (no planes that week) from Chicago to Baltimore for my father’s memorial service on September 14, 2001, the National Day of Mourning for the September 11 victims. Why was that scary? Well, I think you already know the one about how I don’t drive on a regular basis. Then there’s the part about driving in and out Chicago, topped only by my being on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, surrounded by 18-wheelers at rush hour. The thought of it sends shivers down my spine.
  • Realizing I was truly alone after I had just moved to Austin. I was living at the Y and heard a cricket under my bed. I knew that my father wasn’t going to get me out of that one–and instead of screaming, I actually had to do something about this creature.
  • Speaking Spanish in class at the Instituto Cervantes. Everybody else launched into three-day stories about their weekends, and I didn’t want to say anything. I realized this fear, my typical style, wasn’t limited to Spanish class: I normally don’t say much in group/classroom settings. Creepy behavior if one wants to practice and learn a language.
  • Signing my life away by buying a condo. I had nightmares.
  • Being in the Swiss Alps, accompanied by my fear of heights.
  • Wasting any time thinking about people who, I’m sure, are not thinking about me.
  • Getting laid off for the first time, and then getting laid off three more times. Well, actually, the fourth time, I responded, “Okay,” as if it were no big deal and left. First, I hated that job, and second, I hated that job. And I knew that somehow I’d get something. Perhaps the fourth time was the charm because I’m now in Madrid.
  • Moving to Japan and staying there for three years. I needed to get my head examined. An emotional rollercoaster ride.
  • Going out too much in my twenties. I could have been home studying Spanish.

And the list goes on.

So what has haunted me most this year? Well, I knew I might be moving to Madrid, but whether or not I was, I had to ensure I found a place for all of my stuff, preferably outside of my condo. Since I was unemployed, I thought, “What if I don’t get this time off again? I want to make really good use of it so that I can look back on this period of my life and know that I accomplished a lot.” And the reason I wanted to do it is that owning all of that stuff was making me wildly unhappy and scaring me, because instead of writing or singing or taking a dance class or becoming really good at Spanish conversation or doing anything creative, I was becoming a vessel for arranging, ordering, getting rid of, going crazy over, and being haunted by my stuff.

Now, I admit it: I like to shop if I can buy something or if I’m in a foreign country and am just looking around to see the wares, but at this stage of my life, I am typically in and out of the place quickly since I know what I do and don’t like. And I’m really careful with my money. Although I like clothes and have a good eye, I am not a fashionista, but I do, probably like a lot of people, feel some sort of satisfaction at buying something cute, fun, interesting, or different, thinking that it will somehow, magically, transform my life and solve all of my problems, but do I need loads of these things? And who is keeping tabs on whether I have this much stuff or not? After visiting perhaps a dozen temples while in Thailand in 1994, I came to the conclusion that no one cared if I had gone to the 13th temple. It’s not as if someone back in the U.S. is going to quiz me about which temples I’ve visited. There was even a huge chance that they wouldn’t have cared that I had gone to Thailand in the first place.

I couldn’t help but think of a show I had seen about how children in an African village were sleeping on the ground, wearing tattered clothing, and surviving on a diet of bugs. Of course we have all seen and probably been moved by these images, with some of us donating to charities, but this image haunted me for a long time. Here I was with 20 tee shirts, several dresses that I couldn’t fit into because I had gained at least 35 pounds after having three foot surgeries, 20 pairs of shoes, 20 lipsticks, 20 pairs of tights, 20 this, 20 that. Why?

There were too many clothes in the drawers, too many heavy photo albums under the bed, too many books I had already read or hadn’t even cracked, CDs I never listen to anymore, stacks of paper containing my writing that I didn’t want to leave lying around or even in a file cabinet, clothes I needed to give away, etc. It sounds like a lot, but if you have seen my place, you know that I am not a hoarder, nor am I messy or dirty: In fact, my place looks pretty cute and clean when I have a party, but it’s small, so keeping its contents in order is difficult. Therefore, I:

  • Donated some of my never-worn clothes and shoes to Fourth Presbyterian Church
  • Went through all my files, ensuring my writing was stored safely in a computer file; I then recycled the paper
  • Sorted my nails, screws, brackets, etc., and gave the extras to the head maintenance guy in my condo building (and he was happy to take them)
  • Gave used clothes to the Mt. Sinai Hospital Resale Shop on Diversey
  • Gave CDs to friends and about 100 books — and CDs to the Newberry Library for tax write-off purposes. Javier had put all of my music on my iPod (which was stolen my first hour in Spain…One fewer thing I have to deal with, I guess…Thanks, robbers)
  • Waded through all of my photo albums and threw out meaningless pictures: bad pictures of me, pictures of people I don’t know, duplicates, fuzzy pictures, etc. I tossed about 500 pictures and gave away about six empty photo albums
  • Provided my manicurists/pedicurists, 1/2 block away, with all kinds of stuff.
  • Gave my DVD burner and over-sized 13-year-old TV to one of the maintenance men of my condo building (his cousin needed a TV); I’ll buy a flat-screen when I return to the States
  • Gave 12 boxes of stuff for my college friend to store in her house in the suburbs
  • Loaded, in two trips, probably 15 boxes of my possessions into my friend’s van
  • Assisted a friend in selling our stuff at her garage sale

So if you ever find yourself scared silly by all of your stuff, here’s what I recommend: Either know, in fact, you are moving to Spain OR pretend you’re moving to Spain or any European country…or any land mass not connected to the U.S. (neither Canada nor Mexico will suffice) and you have to rent your furnished condo. Suddenly, you start focusing on exactly where all of your stuff should go, whereas before you couldn’t decide if the candlestick should go on the end table or the breakfast bar. If you can’t actually force yourself to live in a foreign country, merely use your imagination to travel there — and get rid of your stuff so that someone else can use it … if they’re foolish enough to take it off your hands.

I’m very proud of myself for facing my scary stuff head-on. Ironically, though, now that I have cleaned out my place and moved to Madrid, I still haven’t actually rented out my place, part of the reason I was cleaning my stuff out in the first place. Now I’m paying my rent here in Madrid and my mortgage in Chicago. I’m going to be destitute: I just know it. Another frightening story to add to my list.

Internationally yours,

International Girl in Spain

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