My mom had me at the age of 20, unwed. She is part of a large Catholic family.
That was 31 years ago. Today, my parents, sisters, and I discuss my moms' and my early years in an "against all odds" way-- "despite the fact the her parents momentarily disowned her... despite the fact that we were poor... despite the fact that my mom was uneducated... despite the fact that my biological father was an alcoholic... WE MADE IT, against all odds!"
It's more obvious than ever that my mom and I made it despite many odds. I feel ashamed to admit that until now, I've never considered so deeply how privileged my less-privileged experience was.
I was born more audacious than my mom was prepared for. I was born energetic, risk-averse, and curious. My mom's attempts at constraint and protection were only necessary to a certain extent. Ultimately, I was a white girl in a white world and that was better than being a Black or Brown girl in the same world.
My mom got herself into trouble; I got myself into trouble; we are still getting in trouble. These last few days, my past experiences and decisions have been keeping me up at night. I wonder: If my mom were Black, how would my experience be different? Would we even be alive?
If my mom were black, would our lives have looked like this?
My mom gets pregnant at age 19. She immediately receives the healthcare she needs.
My mom's parents are able to care for her and myself in our early months.
My mom is not questioned when she applies for, and receives, food stamps and housing assistance. She only needs such welfare for one year.
My mom is able to apply for jobs and earn an income, despite being less educated, young, and limited by childcare.
My mom is able to get childcare.
My mom is able to search for apartments in a variety of neighborhoods.
My mom is able to find an apartment she can afford. And even if she can't really afford it, she isn't questioned extensively by her landlord.
When my mom is forced to call the cops when her alcoholic baby daddy comes knocking, the neighbors don't call the cops, too.
My mom isn't shot by those cops, and neither is her baby daddy.
My mom is able to, in good faith, claim economic independence from her baby daddy, to relinquish his requirement to pay child support. Because she knows she can get a job and that her family can help her.
My mom has options when considering how to raise me.
At a company picnic, the man who is to become my adopted father, who doesn't yet know me, starts casually playing games with me.
My mom eventually introduces this new boyfriend to her family. They welcome him.
My mom has a variety of choices when considering where she and my father will be married.
Nearly 250 people show up for their wedding, glad to support this beautiful couple.
My dad is able to adopt me, two years later, with unquestioning support from the judge.
Our family is able to relocate, finding new jobs and new homes, at-will and often.
My parents are playful with their livelihoods, starting small businesses, renovating our homes, decorating their children's rooms.
My parents have options when considering which school to send my sisters and I to.
My mom returned to school at age 30 to earn her first degree.
My mom lets me play in the street for hours into the night. She lets me walk to school. She lets me explore my suburban world.
My mom allows me to choose which sports and hobbies I pursue, from a myriad and never-ending stream of options.
My mom attends every event where I am nominated a leader in my endeavors-- Team Captain(s), 3rd in Class GPA, Student Body President, etc.
My mom receives me when I am returned home by the cops, or come running from parties busted by the cops, in one piece and alive.
My mom's hard work elevates her through the ranks of various non-profit companies, until she became an Executive Director. My mom asks for, and is awarded, substantial income raises.
My mom encourages me to attend, and pay for, an expensive education. She has faith that I will be gainfully employed thereafter.
My mom accepts my boyfriends, and they accept her.
When I mess up, my mom and I recognize that I have many opportunities to rectify the situation.
Society recognizes my mom and my mistakes as bad decisions, not an expression of who we are as people.
My mom reads every resume I send her from every type of job I can find. She knows that I will not be limited by my skin color, my name, or my education when applying.
My mom watches when the local news features me on a story about "the New American dream."
When I struggle with an eating disorder, my mom finds me treatment and is able to get a loan to foot the bill.
My mom knows that I am being cared for in a compassionate, non-judgmental way.
My mom supports my travels and international relocation. In some cases, like my visit to India, my mom acknowledges this is an opportunity to feel like a racial "other."
My mom instills in me the belief that, if I work hard enough and creatively, I can find within our society the things I need to live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life.
I can only write some of these questions. They get stuck in my throat when I try to speak them.
Like, "If my mom were black, would my adopted father have played with me at the company party? Would the judge have approved his adoption decree?" I think that my dad would have played with me, even if he is white and my mom were black. I think that the judge would have approved a mixed-race adoption. But... if they were someone else... or more white people were watching... would they have made the good decisions that they made? Would anyone in that situation have done so then? Would anyone do so now?
Even as I look down at him, this short brown man in a blue beanie and silver chain, he stands inches above me in moral stature, saying, It's not okay. Even if you're late, it's not okay.
I shake like a leaf under his hands. He has every right to sock me for nearly causing his early demise. Instead he places firm hands around my bony biceps, a bold and totally appropriate move.
There was frost on my windshield... I'm so late for work! I wail.
He stares into my soul, shaking his head nononononono, imparting on me the life-long lesson I had just slammed head-long into for the umpteenth time in 30 years:
If you go fast enough for long enough, you'll eventually hit an end. And it probably won't be the one you were driving toward.
The time is precisely 15 minutes before I am supposed to be gracefully waking up my 6:45AM yoga class. I am sure I'd set my alarm for 5:30AM, so that I could ride my bicycle into the city and suck down a bleary-eyed coffee before teaching my first fitness class of the day. Instead I'd woken with a start at 6:23AM and flew out of bed like a someone who'd fallen asleep with popcorn on the oven.
I pulled on a huge T-shirt, a pair of cheap black boots, and yoga pants. I grabbed a pack of gum and my ever-ready backpack. I tore out of the front door, ran through my apartment building, plunged into the rain without a jacket, peeled open the dinged-up door to my Corolla, ignored the frost on every window, reversed without looking, gunned it up the street, breezed past the stop sign, looked right, and turned left.
Then slammed on my brakes as a beautiful white SUV swerved to avoid me.
Silence, as my eyes finally opened.
The SUV and I both hesitated breathlessly on the side of the road, exhaust creating gentle clouds around us. And then I looked at my watch. I could still make it.
My yogis needed me! They had gotten up and made it to class; they were there waiting for me! Sure, I would make $22 teaching it. Parking gobbled up $6. But it was my duty.
So I hit the gas.
To my horror, The SUV turned around and started following me. Like a rabbit under a hawk, I drove faster. He did, too. Oh. My. God.
A momentary chase ensued. Then I took another hard left, swerved to avoid another white car, and felt like I got hit between the eyeballs by a ping pong ball: JUST STOP.
Now I was standing in the rain, crying like an 8-year-old. Ironically, this is a scene I'd been in countless times before. In front of my mom, my dad, my ex boyfriend, my best friend, a Shaman...
Me hopping around a-la Alice in Wonderland, chanting, I'm late, I'm late, to a very important date! No time to wait! No time to wait! I'm late, I'm late, I'm late!
And them saying: It doesn't matter.
He has an accent, something from parts South. His car is nicer than mine; he is dressed for the weather. I have the fleeting thought that he must wonder what the Hell I do for a living, if this hodge-podge of a body cover was my work outfit.
Listen, listen, it doesn't matter. The job, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. You can't drive like that. You will hurt something.
His big brown eyes peer at me with a mixture of caution, pity, and awe. He's not saying my job is meaningless. What he's saying is: if I show up to work dead, my job doesn't matter. If I show up to my work having killed someone else, my job doesn't matter. It's not just about the job: there's work in getting there, too. Be careful with the work. All of it.
Meekly, I whimper, Okay, I'll call my boss. Then, I'm sorry.
I climb back into Carl the Corolla and drive slowly up the street. He watches me from behind his windshield, but he doesn't pursue. I call the gym: I'm not going to make it to class; I've gotten in a near-accident. I'm so sorry. Please tell my yogis how sorry I am.
I drag myself back to bed and tell my groggy partner everything. That guy was right, I say.
Like a bug in a Venus fly trap, I disappear into my partner's compassionate embrace. He's seen me learn this lesson before: I guess it's kind of like watching someone getting their teeth cleaned.
When I wake up later, I realize that I am mildly feverish: headache, throat ache, chest ache, stuffy nose, the works. That must have been why I overslept, even after an early bedtime the night before.
And so, I cancel all of my appointments.
The world is telling me to write. It's the only habit that has ever slowed me down.
Dear Man in the White SUV: My mom says, "Thank you."
Squinting into the wind, I looked up at the big, grey cloud threatening rain above me. Surrounded by light blue sky and jolly white puffy clouds, I nearly laughed: the menacing cloud was actually the shape of a heart. At that moment, I knew what I wanted my gravestone to say.
“Leave when it’s still good.” Of course. I smiled happily to myself.
You may think it morbid that naming my gravestone would bring me such pleasure; alas, I had been thinking about death most of the morning. The death of women past, to be clear. Most recently, the death of my partner’s grandmother, Babe, and her sister, Mary-Jane. Unlike Babe, who suffered from dementia in her later years, Mary-Jane died at age 99 the brain of a fox. Babe and Mary-Jane had been apart for some years, no longer able to travel to each other’s states to meet. And yet they remained with one another in spirit. In fact, it was Babe’s inability to recall Mary-Jane that helped my partner’s mom begin the grieving process for her mother. Her mother’s spirit that was lost, evident in the fact that her mind could no longer recall loved ones.
My move to Seattle in March to live with my partner’s family is related to the passing of his grandmother. Like many elderly, Babe had accumulated years of treasured-- and not-so-treasured-- items in her home. My partner’s family had moved into the home years ago to better care for Babe. Now, the sorting process: what to keep? What to heap? What will make us weep? Their goal is to sell the home within a few years; there’s a lot of items, and memories, to get through before then.
As I walked down the seaside, thinking of the mind in death, women past, and their home thereafter, I realized my last relocation was also connected with the death of a special lady. Shortly after my move from the States to England I visited the home of my deceased heroine, Auntie Val. Val was actually my Grandmother’s Aunt. My grandparents and I had the task of clearing her fantastic home to prepare it for sale. It’s very difficult to describe the type of emotion I felt at that time; something like adoration, loneliness, and spirituality. Each trinket we picked up had a story; my Grandmother surprised herself by the memories she held of my Aunt. Like Babe, Auntie Val lost her self-sufficiency to the recesses of dementia. Like my partner’s mom, my grandmother dissociates the woman Val was in her final years as being different from the woman’s travels, tales, and talkative nature. Her legacy.
We may think that Mary-Jane left when it was still good, her brain communicating with her body. I think otherwise. I think all the ladies left when it was still good, because their legacy was established. Even though their bodies and minds died at different rates, these women’s legacies were created before, and lived on after, their actual passing.
Many people lightly explain yoga as “mind-body” connection. But that’s a very reductionist view of the pursuit. Us yogis realize our mind and body is already connected: when we practice pranayama, we come to see that we breathe all day long without actively thinking about it. We use yoga to become aware of that connection, and then move past it. We see that something special is created when our mind and body merge. That is our legacy, our spirit, the difference between ourselves and a cadaver. Without the body there is no mind; without the mind there is no body; put them together, and there’s a fully functioning human. If that’s all it takes to make us function, then what makes certain people shine? What lives on after they’ve died? What happens to the human when just one part of the mind-body connection wavers?
When we mourn someone’s passing, we grieve their complete human packages. Not their mind; not their body; but the way they choose to live their life. By making decisions that establish their unique objectives and persona, they create a legacy. One day at a time, for many, many years. When that legacy is detailed in stories passed through generations, then that character lives on. One of my mantras is, “WWAVD?”-- what would Auntie Val do? With her legacy, I create mine.
When I was clearing out Auntie Val’s house, I remember thinking quite clearly that when I died, I wanted to die like her-- a lady with a life of great stories, who was remembered for her positive attributes and who’s legacy would be carried on. Now, preparing to help clear the house of another lady, I experienced the same feeling of timelessness. As I walked, I visualized my gravestone and the woman buried below it.
I had gone on the walk that morning to blow off steam. I was supposed to be earning money. Instead, a client cancelled on me. It was the fourth time that week. After thinking of grandmothers, death, and trinkets for some time, I wondered why I wasn’t bothered by the lack of income I’d had that week. I realized that the legacy I wanted to create was not, “Obsessive about money.” In fact...
That woman’s legacy was not on her plate.
That woman’s legacy was not in her bank account.
That woman’s legacy was not in her harmful habits.
That woman’s legacy was not in her social anxiety.
That woman’s legacy was not in her wine glass.
That woman’s legacy was not in blind ambition.
That woman’s legacy was not in her egotism.
That woman’s legacy was not in her rude outbursts.
That woman’s legacy was not in her silence.
That woman’s legacy was not in her workaholism.
Suddenly, my values poured into my heart like a raincloud just burst. I saw my sisters; my partner; I saw my parents; I saw my own healthy body; I saw a curious mind; I saw new friends; I saw adventure; I saw a comfortable retirement; I saw pain, sacrifice; I saw success, and love. I knew that every step, every day, every rain cloud represented another chance to assert the woman that would eventually die. The woman who lived life with a big heart, grey or white or any other color.
Upon my entrance to my flat, the big heart cloud poured rain on Malta. I rejoiced in my good timing. I didn’t expect to be so lucky again. But if I lived as the brave women did before me, I could handle the next storm. I might even turn it into a story...
As soon as I’d huffed my luggage in, the dark wooden door frame slammed shut behind me, cutting off the sound of honking cars. Three other people in line had apparently waited until the last second to send their post, as well; it was 12:40PM in an office that closed at 12:45PM. Seeing that they were foreign, I wondered if they shared my irritation that a public business should close before most people have eaten lunch.
A man appeared behind the glass screen, smiling widely and waving his hand toward me. “Hello, come in! How can I help you!” I was taken aback- unlike many countries, Malta lacks customer service folkways (or at least repercussions for not following them). From buying groceries to getting a moped serviced, there is no rhyme or reason to the level of acknowledgment, personalization or assistance you will receive.
Moving toward the counter, the postman gleefully eyed my pink suitcase. “Would you like to ship that? Great!” He hurried out from behind the counter and ushered me to a desk, tucking the chair underneath my [petite?] bum. A pen was whisked into my hand and papers placed in front of me. “Now, we can send it via a service today, if you want. It will be more expensive. But there’s another service that leaves once a week, on Thursdays. If you elected to do that it would be much cheaper, but it won’t arrive for some time. What do you think?” Fingers on his chin, he looked at me with 100% focus, empathetically weighing our options. “I’ll take the cheapest way!” I asserted.
“Mela!” he shouted, turning on his heels to arrange the necessary preparations behind the scenes. Five minutes later he’d managed my little case’s journey. I turned at the door to thank him, maybe even to ask if there was some survey I could fill out to acknowledge his work. But he was busy coo-ing at the next client’s baby. Customer service win! I rejoiced.
Customer service opportunity #2 sat across the street. It was fat, white, and intimidating. The Peace Corps required that I provide fingerprints for a background check, advising a visit to the US Police Station. Unsure of Maltese alternatives, I wanted to see if my local police station might help.
An older gentleman stood in the hall, wearing a tweed suit jacket, bow tie, and expertly curved white hair. His hands were behind his back. He looked at me with smiling eyes as I craned my neck left and right. When I looked to the right, the door nearest slammed shut. I followed the old man’s gaze left, where I saw several policemen leaning on counters, hands in pockets, chatting to each other behind a slightly open door frame. A large printed white sign said, “PLEASE KNOCK AND WAIT.”
“You have to wait,” he said to me. “I think they are talking on the telephone, something important.” He wiggled his chin a few times, Maltese body language for, “I guess that’s what’s happening and I won’t argue.” I, for one, saw no cops on phones. Before he could look away, I caught eyes with an officer. He glared at me, making a STOP gesture with his hand and then wagging his finger. “Stupid puppy- sit! Stay!” he seemed to say. Tail between my legs, I ducked behind the gentleman.
A few moments later a man came in. He did everything I did, although he received only a slammed door. Apparently he was a better dog than I! Then a lady came in. She was one of those cool Maltese chicks who always seemed to know exactly where she was, what she was doing, and didn’t need to open her eyes very wide to understand these things. After standing for a few casual minutes, it was her presence that seemed to bring the policeman inside out of their stupor. Suddenly three of them descended: one female, carrying papers and rushing past us down the corridor; and two men, who kept their hands in their pockets and walked right up to me, toes turned outward and chest jutted forward.
“Yes?” Pointing at the older man, I blurted, “He’s first!” The second policeman turned to him. The first turned back to me. “Yes?”
“I need to get my fingerprints taken by an authority. The police can do it where I’m from, in America. Are you able to help me with it here?”
“What?” he smiled meanly.
“I need my fingerprints taken.”
“Why?” he smiled curiously.
“I’m not in trouble! It’s for the Peace Corps! You know? A two-year volunteer program in Africa.”
The he said something that sounded like a very rude thing that sounds like “fudgeyourmudder.”
“Huh?” I ogled, nearly laughing.
“Floriana.” He smiled in a bored way, crossing his arms over his massive chest.
“There is an organization in Floriana that can do it for me?”
He crossed his arms and grinned. “Floriana Police Station. The main station. They can do it there.”
I smiled widely. I knew where that was! (That’s another blog). “Oh, great, wonderful, thank you for your help, sir!” With a chuckle, he turned to the next man in line. I ran out of the station. Customer service tie, I thought.
As I rounded the corner I saw one of the ubiquitous Maltese vegetable sellers. This man was always busy, a good sign. As I walked past I noticed a clear bag full of what looked like chopped vegetables. I stopped-- where was the seller?
“Those vegetables!” someone shouted from inside the cart. I jumped, seeing a blue hat bobbing behind a turnip. He hopped out the back and walked toward me.
“I put everything in it! Kale! Broccoli! Potatoes! Cabbage! Turnips! Lettuce! Sweet potato! Cilantro! Everything from my truck I put it in there!”
“Oh yeah?” I ask.
“Everything from my truck I put it in there! I chop it back there, with my knives!” he roared with laughter, pointing to the raised caverns of the truck bed, behind the green plastic vegetable bins.
“What do people use it for?”
“For everything! For soups! For casseroles! They do it with meat! They do it on the stove! They roast it! They do everything with it!” He threw his hands up to the sky, to those great gods who inspire his wonderful cooking customers.
“How much is it?” I ask.
“I put everything on my truck in it! Three fifty! Everything goes in! Hahahahah!”
“Great! Hahaha! I’ll take it!” Tucking my treasure into my backpack, I laugh with him as I walk away. Customer service winner takes all!
Finally, to the grocer. Like most grocers, they’re located directly next to another grocer. Somehow, they both stay in business. Not only does my preference carry a certain kind of chewing gum, but they also treat me like dirt when I come in. I love it: If I’m in the mood, I tease them into turning the corners of their mouth upward ever so slightly, like a grandfather irking a moody child. If I’m not in the mood, we avoid each other’s gaze and secretly fall in love (at least that’s what I think happens).
Today she’s in a tizzy. I barely enter the shop, wanting only to fulfill my addiction to minty freshness and leaving. She’s on the telephone with a BOV cheque and some papers on the counter. She turns away from me when I enter. I count out exact change and try to reach past her to the gum that’s kept behind the counter. This is a bold move. Alas, she doesn’t seem to care. Still, it’s a bit too far. She does nothing, continuing her anxious chatter. I hear the words, “Twenty-five euros” several times. I feel bad for her. But, I’m also keen to get out. Again I crane. No luck. I step away from the counter, sigh loudly, and look at her.
She looks at me, phone to her ear. I must be transparent.
I look at her, frowning, eyebrows raised. I am conveying a clear message. “There is your money. You know what I want.”
She barely moves the phone from her mouth. “Yes?”
“Chewing gum please. The big green kind.” She grabs the wrong kind and scans it. I give up, pointing to the money on the counter. She nods at me, brings the phone back to her mouth, and keeps talking. I exit.
You can’t win them all, I think.
I’ll never forget when I first met Josette. I was trudging up the hill from St. Julian’s into Ta Giorni, the first time of what would become many a forlorn commute. I had given myself three days to find a job, a flat, and some semblance of a Maltese identity. At least that was how long I’d asked my Couchsurfer to host me for. I was mid-way through a day full of timetables, apartment viewings, interviews, bus rides, currency exchanges, etcetera. Typical to Malta in spring, the wind was howling. I was trying desperately to keep my interview-ready hair free of sweat and dust while navigating around a place I’d never been with limited access to WiFi. Exasperated, I thought, “I need to eliminate some variables here.”
That’s when I rounded the corner onto Josette’s hair salon. I don’t recall what it’s name was; just the classy brand, a silhouette surrounded by a wave of hair that looked much better in the wind than mine. Checking my watch, I decided that 15 minutes was plenty of time for a capable stylist to chop my hair off. I charged in.
It was the first time I’d receive a most characteristic Maltese gaze, the one they reserve for foreigners who they do not expect to notice. It is like being regarded and disregarded at once; like looking into someone’s eyes that are shaded by a hat in the sun. “Are you available to give me a haircut? One that’s very short?!” I asked.
Fumbling with my mobile phone, I Googled ‘Emma Watson short hair.’
“Like this,” I said, displaying the image of Emma Watson with a Twiggy-style do.
Josette jutted her chin out, made a soft clicking noise, and muttered mela. It was the first time I’d here the resourceful term. “So short?” she asked, peering at me over her spectacles.
“Yes. I have fifteen minutes. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?”
I pointed the clock, on the hour. “Can we finish by one?”
Her mouth partially open, she looked at me, the clock, and the photo. “Your name?” she asked.
“Emily. What’s yours?”
Shaking her head slightly, she stood up with a sigh. “Josette.”
That was the 9th of February 2016, the first of many serendipitous days that have made my lucky life in Malta. Jogging up the street with a new sweat-free coif, I did in fact claim the next flat I looked at. Jogging back down the street an hour later, I did in fact land the next job I interviewed for. It was like getting launched from a rocket. And now, after flying so high for two years, landfall is finally in-view: I’ll be moving from Malta this March, two years and one month from when I launched.
My relationship with Josette in many ways encapsulates my successful journey here. With time to spare and feeling guilty for the momentary havoc I’d wrecked on her otherwise peaceful salon, I popped in to thank her again. By way of her customer, who provided translations when Josette and I couldn’t make ourselves understood, Josette asked me about my life-- where was I from? Was I living here? Did I work? When I explained the situation, Josette started “WhatsApp”-ing madly. She connected me with people who had flats to rent and told her friends about my yoga classes. My original interpretation of her being standoffish was incorrect. Consequently, it would be the first of many times I misunderstood Maltese interactions.
My first job was as a waitress at the Hilton. I only planned to work part-time, wanting the locally-based gig so that I could get a bank account, a steady income, and a few friends. In fact, I worked overtime, commuting past Josette’s hair salon twice daily. When Josette was there she waved gaily at me, and often came to the door asking me to come in for a chat. For the first few months I would stay, comforted by the warmth and familiarity. We didn’t speak much, as her English was limited, but she always asked how I was getting along in Malta. As I became more consumed in my own life, I stopped finding time for Josette.
Eventually, I transitioned from working at the Hilton to teaching yoga and Pilates; writing; and picking up other odd jobs. The next time I was to see Josette was at The Corinthia Hotel’s pool. I had my head down, sneaking in from the seaside between SUP yoga lessons to grab a much-needed coffee. “Emily!” I heard in her uniquely hoarse voice.
“Josette!” I squealed, hugging her (with a sigh of relief- she wasn't pool security).
“These are my grandkids!” she proudly displayed two kids who gave me one eyeball of an acknowledgment as they snacked on hobz sandwiches that I could tell were lovingly folded by Josette’s own hands. Dozens of other children and a score of mothers and grandmothers sat nearby. Curiously, the Maltese love big hotel amenities as much as tourists. Many families book summer-long discounted memberships to hotel pools, spending the summer splashing full-price paying visitors with a callous lack of remorse. Josette was delighted to see me in my bikini that day, earning an income in the sun and sea. She clucked and smiled, a round mother hen.
Like a typical expat, I soon left my home on the edge of San Gwann for the more centrally-located and posh area in Sliema. On one typically crazed day, nearly a year since I’d seen Josette smiling with her grandkids at the pool, I flicked on Facebook to see a notice at the top of my newsfeed: Josette had passed away in the night. She was less than 60 years old. I read the posts on her wall. There were many from people just like me, who’d met Josette on a whim and been captivated by her compassion. I sat there recalling every time I’d run past her hair salon offering barely a nod as she smiled and waved. I wrote a simple Facebook note on her wall, thanking her. It felt hollow.
My next class passed by in a daze. I drove the long way home past Josette’s hair salon. The blinds were down; the sign said “Closed;” a wreath was on the door. I felt weak. A week later I passed by on the way to a client’s house who happened to live on the same street. There was a “For Sale” sign on the door.
After our class, my client mentioned saying that they were looking to buy a small studio where they could host their Balinese massage therapist. “There’s a hair salon down the street for sale,” the clients said. “I guess the lady who owned it had a heart attack.”
“Oh, you knew her? Do you know if we can get a good deal on the place?”
I stood looking at them, dumbfounded. Things got awkward.
“So sorry you lost your friend…”
It wasn’t until I said, “She was my first friend in Malta,” that I realized it was true.
That’s the thing about Malta. Fifteen minutes, six months, two years can pass in the blink of an eye. As soon as one expat comes the next one goes. As soon as one property is leased the next is put on the market. That’s why the Maltese have that look, that offish curiosity: they cleverly and cautiously navigate the ever-changing environment, aware of its cyclical nature.
I’d always said I would live at least two years in Malta, required that I achieved a long list of goals. With a boyfriend stuck Stateside, many a family event beckoning me home, and a taste for adventure, I will become another expat that came, tanned, made some money, and then left Malta. If I let my experience here disappear the way Josette’s presence did, I’ll forever regret it. I spend all day telling my clients they’re not too busy to invest in their body. Now it’s time to tell myself that I’m not too busy to invest in my memory, to honor this little rock that changed my worldview.
Stay tuned, my friends. During this final month in Malta I will blog daily, even if just a short “Maltese Moment.” I’ve spent the past two years burning my candle on both ends. As the moon rises, I’m ready to slow down, muse, and delight on this island life so that I can leave when it’s still good.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally written for a major publication, after a friend recommended me for the prompt. Alas, the publication didn't like it. While the piece is a bit more "sales-y" than I like, it's still a great guide to visiting Malta with an all-ages family. As always, comment with your ideas below!
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While Malta was voted the second-best place for expats to live, expats and locals alike enjoy spending as much time next to the sea as possible! During summertime establishments like MedAsia and KuYa Asian Pub open beach lounges. For as little as €10 daily families can rent deck chairs, take dips in the pool and/or private beaches, and nibble globally-influenced food concoctions.
All are Welcome
It is common to see gay couples walking hand-in-hand in Malta. Malta is ranked #1 on the Europe Rainbow Index as an LGBT-friendly place. One website, Gay Guide Malta, details LGBTQ-friendly attractions. Certain bars and clubs, like Monaliza Lounge in Valletta and Michelangelo Club in Paceville cater specifically to gay clientele.
Certain classic Maltese food items are ubiquitous: pea Pastizzi; wood-fired pizza with olives, gbenja cheese; crisp Cisk beer. For more flavour, try Malta’s innovative dinning options. There are hip restaurants like PastaHaus, where home-made pasta is derived from unique ingredients. Legliglin offers a multi-course meal of traditional Maltese small plates with impeccable flavour from inside a quaint cellar. Even freaky Maltese foods, like rabbit and horsemeat, are exciting and accessible at fashionable restaurants like United Bar & Restaurant in Mgarr.
Focus on Fitness
Perhaps because people spend so much time in swimsuits, Malta is packed with gyms and fitness groups. Young people frequent trendy gyms like Fort Fitness. Yoga is a big industry; from Bikram-style HotYogaMalta to outdoor sessions with freelance instructors, there’s many classes choose from. Take an outdoor group fitness class to get a new perspective on Malta’s beach scene. Most classes and gyms offer affordable single class and day rates.
There are many creative ways for family to travel in and around the Maltese archipelago. Guided tours by segway, jeeps, boats, and on-foot are easy to find. Self-guided alternative transportation, like moped and mountain bike rentals, are also available. Traditional Maltese ferries run between Valletta and the Three Cities. You adults feeling particularly adventurous might try a StandUp Paddle Board for their island tour!
The European Environment Agency recognises Malta as having some of the best bathing water in Europe. Visitors are encouraged to take a deeper dive into Malta’s fascinating underwater sights: sunken WWII ships and freighters are just meters off-shore. While younger swimmers hone their snorkeling techniques, young adults might consider earning PADI training course with local scuba schools like DiveShack.
Educational OpportunitiesEven teens will appreciate the fascinating lessons in Malta’s recent history. Well-preserved citadels in Mdina and on the Maltese island, Gozo, offer history-rich tours. The architecture alone at the Esplora Science Centre is an intriguing blend of historical Maltese elements and contemporary design. Climbing into the Lascaris War Rooms is like walking back in time, complete with archival footage of Malta under siege.
Just DanceAt the end of the day, Malta is a great place for all-ages to party. In Paceville music-filled bars and eateries open until the wee morning hours. For a relaxed night, seek out reggae-inspired music venues like Funky Monkey in Gzira and Zion in Marsaskala. Or, dress-to-impress at high-rise Suite 22 and high-energy events by The Electronic Factory. But if a casual family night out is on the agenda, enjoy a drink and live music at one of the restaurants on the St. Julian’s/ Sliema promenade.
I run to the grocery store on my way home at 8:30PM. The shop is my “local,” within walking distance of my house. I pop by at least once a day. Alan is the owner. His wife works behind the deli counter. His sulky pre-teen sulks in sometimes. Once, his mom and I conned him into sharing a bite of his figolla during Easter. Much to his chagrin, I have never let the poor kid forget it. “Hey, gimme’ a bite of your figolla!” I chide every time I see him.
Once outside, I hastily park Hamallu, my steadfast scooter. Without bothering to remove my helmet, I brush past three men outside the netting-covered storefront. They are workers, their clothes splattered with white goop and their fingers stained black. They rub their hands in that way old men rub their callouses, petting their own hides. One man sits on a short ledge. Next to him are piled empty cans of Cisk Excel. The other two men stand next to him with Cisks in their hands.
This site, blue-collar men drinking at grocers after a long day, is common in Malta. It reminds me of my BASEDtraveler Plymouth days, when I watched British men stand outside bars, drinks in-hand. Maybe the Maltese penchant has something to do with British influence on the island. It’s true that there are not many bars in the area (unless you count the black-market brothel that fronts as a bar). However, I do not think the men would go to a bar even if it were there. They enjoy being curbside, paying quickly and sitting as long as they like. Perched, hands unwashed, watching the world pass by. Their colleagues ask nothing more than to banter and pass enough time for their muscles to cool. This scene repeats itself in every country: working men drinks in hand, sitting outside some no-frills establishment. Cooling down with the setting sun.
Under green netting outside the front entry, I grab a bag of crispy apples smaller than the size of my fist. According to 2010 census data, 66% of Maltese agricultural landholdings earned less than 2,000 Euros annually. Therefore, Malta ships in almost all of its fruit and veg. Sometimes the produce bears signs of defrosting. As I check the bag thoroughly for the telltale mooshy apple, the men peer at me. From inside the shop I hear raucous yelling.
That man is accosting poor Alan again, I think. Walking inside, I see the loudmouth I expected: an older Maltese fellow with a paunchy belly, salt-n-pepper hair, a sweatshirt bearing a few random words, holding a Styrofoam cup full of red wine. The nearly empty bottle next to the pastizzi hot tray. He was here sometimes late at night. Like usual, Alan tries to ignore him. Although I consider him a friend, Alan is typically Maltese in that he is not exactly the warmest character. With clean-cut hair, a hulking body, and curt words, Alan seems Mafioso. He is the one that told me about an underground gym in a garage behind the shop. He and I go to train on some Tuesday evenings after he closes. On those nights, Alan and I barely speak to each other, but we train hard for 40 minutes. The first night, courteous Alan paid for my class and tipped the instructor.
This evening the man is particularly raucous. He is loudly shouting says the same words repeatedly: “I run!”
I set my apples on the counter, glancing around. The shop packed to its miniscule hilt. It is so small that two people cannot comfortably move down one of the two aisles. The meticulously cleaned and organized space is evident despite its darkness. Buried under granola bars, the shop even has a machine for mobile top-ups, like an ATM for cell phone data. It is tempting to buy something worthless, like 30-cent yogurt or pack of roasted broad beans, but am overwhelmed by the detritus in the shop.
“That’s all, I guess,” I say to Alan, who barely nods in acknowledgement of my presence. While he sits unmoving behind the counter, his red-haired evening assistant patters nearby, organizing and cleaning. Alan weighs three times my size; she weighs 1/3 less and is much taller. We are an odd bunch at the counter: the loud drinking man; the red-haired assistant; Alan; and myself, wearing a scooter helmet and yoga clothes.
“I run!” the man repeats.
When no one replies, the man looks at me. He moves his hand lightly back and forth in front of his chest, palm up, and turns down his lips at the side. It is a gesture that Maltese people use to signify something like a sigh. The person thinks, “Oh, you know, what can we do?”
“Thirty years ago, I run!” as he says so, he starts laughing madly.
“You know how you have a ‘Hamallu’ scooter?” says Alan. “Well, I have a hamallu Uncle!”
Hamallu is a Maltese term for a person of lesser class. While it originally referenced people from “the wrong side of the tracks”—in this case, the wrong side of the island (the South), today the term references most any trashy Maltese people. Hamallu wear name brand outfits that match from head-to-toe; gold bling; have wide bellies and skinny legs; don cigarettes, sunglasses, high heels, and stiff collars. I named my scooter Hamallu because he is ghetto. He shakes a lot; has a few loose screws. He is also covered in bright stickers. One is a skeleton hand showing a downward-facing middle finger sign. This sign does not mean the same thing in Malta as it does in the States. I presume this is the reason why my sticker faces the wrong way.
Alan is totally fed up with his uncle. “I run, I run!” Uncle shouts. Over him, “2.80,” says Alan. I pour my change onto the counter, taking the opportunity to rid my bag of ubiquitous Maltese small change. With one cent, two cent, five cent, ten cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro, 2 Euro coins, my change purse is always heavy.
“I run!” states Uncle, with a red smile.
“You run, you run, we know you run!” Alan shouts back, throwing his arms up in disgust. I have to laugh: here are two generations of overweight Maltese men in the middle of a grocery store arguing about running at 8:30PM. If this guy were not Alan’s Uncle, he would be out on the corner with the workers.
As I count my change, Uncle refreshes his Styrofoam glass. When is see that the bottle is a higher-quality red, I say to Alan, “I like your Uncle! He drinks good wine!” Uncle turns to me.
“Do you know why I drink red wine?” he asks.
“Why?” I reply, genuinely curious.
“Because I try to be like Jesus!”
The workers move to the side as I exit the grocery store, helmet still on, my American-accented laughter pinging off the green netting. I am still chuckling as I strap my bag-o-apples onto Hamallu’s backseat. From inside the shop, I hear Alan yelling, “You run! You run! I know you run!”
Overview: Recognized by Maltese people as one of the most legitimately Italian places on the island, Scoglitti is one of the rare restaurants as packed in winter months as summer. That’s because Maltese people visit here to celebrate in a place where they will receive the type of fine dining experience normally reserved for tourists. Scoglitti was full of Maltese people when my friend and I blundered in late one weeknight, two lost, starved, and buzzed foreigners.
Atmosphere: Tables sit under a wide roof lined with glass frosted by light blue inscriptions. Bright lights shine under heaters and then bounce off metal and glass chairs, tables, and ice buckets. Even in the middle of Maltese “winter” (if it can be called “winter”) the restaurant feels sunny. The Maltese emit a special series of noises when they’re together, consonants intermingled with rolling chuckles. I felt like a happy seal laying on a beach, being fed fish.
Service: I’m not sure what was more delightful: the suave service I received from maybe five different people throughout my evening or the stellar food. Socglitti’s service matches the food perfectly. Smart, efficient, and demurely superb. NOTE: Much of the staff only speaks Italian, so you may need to request an English speaking staff or use charades (which is perfectly acceptable).
Prices: Despite the story below, Scoglitti’s prices are shockingly affordable! Like all Maltese establishments the food comes in huge portions. A couple can easily split a starter, a main, and a bottle of wine and walk out only €20 shorter. Considering how much fun eating at Scoglitti is, it’s great value for money.
Location and Contact: Access Scoglitti by walking down the long ramp toward Sliema/ Valletta ferry port and the Sliema. It’s located directly on the Sliema port’s Valletta entrance. Use the online reservation system to find details and book.
The Story: One blustery weeknight, my friend and I decided to meet in Valletta for drinks at Café Society. A very fast two hours later, we giggled gingerly back into the uneven streets of Valletta in search of sustenance. We were carrying backpacks, wearing jeans, and smiling in the foolish way slightly buzzed people do. What was supposed to be a quick jaunt to a mid-range restaurant for which I had a coupon turned into a 30-minute dilly-dally to an empty, checker-tabled dive that told us, “the kitchen closed at 7PM.” Which is ridiculous considering most kitchens OPEN at 7PM in Malta.
Wondering which one of us might cannibalize the other first, the blue Scoglitti sign beckoned us like the North Star calls a shepherd. “It’s probably too expensive,” I muttered. “Let’s treat ourselves!” she said. “Good idea!” the beer taking over my nervous system replied.
I wonder about the scene my friend and I must have made throughout the course of our dinner. Windswept, we started by “ooing” and “aaaing” over the fish lining the front entry. Then we stared at the other customers with our mouths open, realizing how terribly underdressed we were. The compassionate hostess approached us, smiling, as if we were wearing the same glitter and heels of other guests. If there’s one thing I appreciate about Scoglitti, it’s the fact that every one of our servers treated us like a deserved guest, ignoring completely the fact that we ordered the cheapest wine, devoured the free bread, split two appetizers (also the cheapest) and an entrée, and then struggled to pay the check with a denied credit card. As the meal progressed my friend and I grew more animated. We drove through our appetizers like a bulldozer, savouring every bite the way a lion savors a gazelle (not slowly, but with appreciation). I was completely awed by the flavors, the efficiency, the service, thanking the waitstaff as only an American will—repetitively. My brilliant friend spoke fluent Italian, so the staff had every right to ignore my incomprehensible purring. But the staff started giggling right along with us, seeming to enjoy my amazed satisfaction as much as I did. As the wine disappeared I started asking staff to pull up a seat and have a drink with me. I don’t know why Italian made me act like a drunk British bloke. Apparently, swordfish and white wine make me ballsy.
Walking out of Scoglitti around 10:30PM in our interpretation of a straight line, my friend and I marvelled about our luck. I promised to pay her the €15 I owed her (plus tip), since my credit card had been denied at the table. Embarrassing, yes. And still, as I ignored nausea and men on my bus ride home, I couldn’t help but chuckling about how very “Pretty Woman” the whole evening was…
I am hungry. I’d come to Valletta for the umpteenth unpaid appointment with the EU Council’s event planning committee. First, I’d spent 20 minutes lost in the multi-part office building’s internal courtyards that resembled the board game, Chutes & Ladders. Then, I’d then spent an hour politely listening to the same thing I’d read in multiple emails. Finally, I leave the meeting cursing bureaucracy, tummy grumbling. I’ll feel better if I grab a snack on my way to the Sliema ferry.
Despite the fact that small-scale grocers squat in every Maltese neighborhood, I search fruit-lessly for a fruit-seller along the antiquated limestone streets of Valletta. Peering around corners like an actor to be caned offstage, I finally notice green plastic vegetable containers in front of a small store. Ducking below the low-hanging sign, my eyes slowly register the staff inside the dusty space. It doesn’t help that two of three staff are kneeling down, searching for something below the cash counter. I assume they are a grandmother and her grandchildren. I assume by their volume and pitch that they are yelling at each other. I assume, by their completed disregard for me, that they don’t much care about serving customers.
As I watch, the grandmother yells something like, “Well, kid, have you found it?” The little boy looks guilty. The little girl slaps the back of his head, saying something like, “There you go again, losing Grandma’s stuff!” He snaps something back, they crawl around a moment longer, and then with a loud huff give up on finding what had been lost. At which point they turn to look at me, standing nervously, subconsciously pushing my ankles together.
“Um, do you have almonds?” I ask meekly.
“U ejja*,” she replies, which in Maltese means something like, “Yah, whatever.” Her bent finger points to a pack of Rokky Nuts, the same brand I buy elsewhere for something like €1.80. Placing them on the counter, I ask, “How much?”
Grandma looks at me. She looks at the almonds. She croaks, “€2.20.” The youngster’s dark eyes pierce mine. They dare me to disagree. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Rounding the next corner, I notice a new uber-hip vegan café. The kind of place that charges €3.20 for a cappuccino made out of milk derived from something without udders. Since I’ve already broken the bank on foreigner-priced almonds, I might as well buy a luxury beverage.
“Can I please get a cappuccino?” I ask the barista over a tray of dark-chocolate gluten-free truffles that cost more than my overpriced almonds. “Is almond milk okay?” she asks. Proudly displaying my Rokky treat, I inquire as to alternative. “That’s all we have here,” she replies. U ejja¸I think. A few moments later she hands me a cappuccino the size of a glass of port. “€3,” she smiles. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Jauntily, I guzzle my first swig of the cappuccino. Promptly, I begin to choke. It tastes like someone stuck a burnt twig down my throat. My tongue shrivels. It is the worst cappuccino I’ve ever drank. I am sure that the milk was burned, or something. Despite myself, I howl with laughter, the shrill sound of surprise bouncing off the porticos above. I slam the cappuccino like a shot of tequila.
Taking my last turn toward the ferry port, I notice a pile of wooden detritus outside a small doorway. I remembered someone telling me that a man baked delectable Maltese bread in a wood-fired oven in Valletta. Because firewood is hard to find on this desert island, hungry locals kept him stocked by dropping their useful rubbish outside the door. Although there is no demarcation on the open doorway, I surmise with delight that this must be the infamous baker. Alas, I had found it—the perfect snack in Valletta!
As soon as I place my big toe on the first step into the basement bakery, a man charges back up the stairs toward me. Moving aside for him to pass, I question, “Do they sell bread here?”
“Obviously,” is his cross reply, brushing past me like a football player in the end zone.
Despite it’s underground space, the entire store is tinged white. I realize it’s because it’s covered in a thin powder, like a bag of flour had burst in front of a fan. There is an internal window facing a backroom, where I see an industrial-size drying rack stacked with Maltese bread. While I am surrounded by packaged grocery items on shelves, there’s no bread. I move toward another doorway to my right, toward excited Maltese voices. Entering the next room, I come upon a Maltese family yelling at each other (as interpreted by my fragile American ears).
I stand in shock at the center of a domestic scene: children and an older lady sit on the ground; other ladies sit on a couch behind them. They seem to be talking—loudly—about something mundane, like the weather or the electric bill. My stepping into the scene immediately silences them, their heads snapping in my direction.
A little girl in a pink tracksuit was the first to break the silence. She is as tall as my belly button. “There!” she barks, prodding me backwards into the room full of groceries.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” I exclaim. “I thought you sold bread here!”
“Bread?” she asks.
“Yes?” I reply.
“What you want?”
The look on her face explains that I am very stupid. I understand this is true, but haven’t the faintest idea how to be smarter. Sighing, the girl humours me. Walking back into the family room, she shouts something in Maltese to the family. A young boy jumps up. The little girls’ curly brown hair disappears and re-appears behind the window to the bread room. The little boy flips the switch of a huge stainless steel machine on a wall inside the family’s room. It grinds loudly to life (the women’s clucking raises in reply). The little girl returns to the family room with a large loaf of white bread in her hand. She stands on tiptoe, lifting the bread high over the machine in one hand, in a graceful arabesque she’d evidently rehearsed before.
No! I think. This is my last chance to have a decent snack in Valletta! The only thing I want is a wholesome loaf of nutty brown bread, the kind that’s difficult to find unless you go straight to the source.
“Wait!” I shout in the split second it takes the girl to alight. The little boy switches off the machine, confused.
“What?!” The girl seems appalled.
“Um, well, it’s just, do you have brown bread?”
Silence. Then, the grandmother shouts a question in Maltese. Without looking away from me, the girl replies over her shoulder to the grandmother. Upon hearing her reply, the family room erupts in laughter. They goad the little girl on. She acquiesces, rolling her eyes. Again her curly ponytail bounces away, reappears in the bread room, disappears again, and then returns to the family room. She marches swiftly toward me, extending her hand.
Inside her petite palm is a micro-portioned single roll of bread the color of honey.
Now it was my turn to cackle. Involuntarily I throw my head backward as chuckles erupt from my throat. A grandmother pokes her head around the corner from to get the full image of this ridiculous situation, a huge smile painted across her face. The other women howl with laughter inside the family room.
“Okay, okay, okay!” I croak. “How much?”
“Twenty cents,” she replies.
“Here’s a euro,” I offer, pushing the metal coin into her palm.
Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
*U ejja is translated to something like, “Come on!” or, “Whatever!” or, “Yeah, right!”
I was recently asked by one of my new yoga employers to describe my “yoga journey.” It was the type of email that I read, and then just sat staring at, fingers hovering over my keys, pinkie flicking expectantly like the twitch of a tired eye. My yoga journey? I didn’t realize I had one. My relationship to yoga is part of my relationship to my fitness. That’s related to my health. My health is the life force of my body. My body is vessel for my mind, creating the whole being that cradles my soul. To isolate yoga is like isolating a leaf from its tree trunk. What will drink the water? What will take the sun? In fact, there’s the matter of the sun and water themselves. A tree is a reflection of and dependent upon its surroundings. In the wrong soil, a tree will not grow.
This piece is my answer to the “yoga journey” question. My yoga journey is that of a young woman growing up. The story is of a physical being that changes as it interacts with the world. A body that responds to a mind that responds to limitless stimuli. Recognizing its own limitations, and the knowledge of others, this being seeks aid. My yoga journey is a story of ages, stages, and sages.
Stage 1: The Bullet
With little effort I am able to recall my first soccer game. I remember running on a breakaway. I can feel the soft thud of leather-polyester blend on my foot. My friend, a boy named Stuart, ran parallel to me, calling “Pass! Pass!” Little wisps of hair caught my eyelashes. My arms swung, propelling me. I kicked the ball. I’ve not got the faintest clue if Stuart received it. But I know my cheeks bunched in a smile.
Until the age of about 13 my physical and emotional selves were blissfully ignorant to their blissful ignorance to people’s comments about my “long legs” and the fact that my body might be somehow separated from my mind and health. I ran, kicked, jumped, ate, played, and loved without inhibition. My mother learned how to cope with her energetically reckless firstborn. My dad was my sage, a fisherman, soccer enthusiast, and ski-instructor. He named me “Bullet” because of the way my blue helmet head bobbed on skis down the mountain behind him. In summer I rollerbladed endlessly with my first friend-and-sage, Jenny Lucas. We fuelled with Dr. Pepper and raw cookie dough. Stretching and boys? Who had time?!
Sometimes, at night, I found a little hill in the greenbelt that wound its way through suburbia. I sat there with my black dog, stretching my feet in front of me, feeling the soft cement under my legs. Looking back, I think those dusky hours were my first savasana.
Stage 2: Delighted Detachment
It was around the age of 13 that I first conceptualized my body as separate from my soul. I will never forget the moment. I was in the shower listening to Destiny’s Child. It was in the home of my Auntie Val, a sage to me then and now (in memoriam). I glanced down at the warm water running over my body and for the first time saw curves. The water dropped from elevated sections of body like little rivers over cliff ledges. Since when was the possible? That’s when I learned to look at my body.
Throughout High School I explored my physical/ spiritual/ emotional connections with delighted detachment. I am truly blessed to be of sound mind, body, and spirit, so my American high school experience presented unlimited opportunities. Despite pimples and a big nose, my womanly features deemed me “hot.” At the same time I also explored spirituality, attending different religious gatherings with my family and journaling. Of course, I was forever an athlete, except athletics were social and stress-reducing activities. Friend-sage Jen Davis and I spent cross country practice flirting with boys or secretly eating chips and queso at her house, which was conveniently located on most of our running trails. As egotistical as all high schoolers are, I didn’t recognize sages of that time: Coach Selle, my cross country coach who expressed such patience, knowing my chattering mouth inhibited what would surely have been a stellar running career. Staci Stech, my English teacher with a cool demeanor and love for written words who demonstrated spiritual writing. My boyfriends, whose love and curiosity taught me the meaning of deeper relationships.
It was during this stage that I also witnessed my first yogi. I cannot recall where, I think probably the local “rec center.” I just remember seeing this man in loose, thin, lungi-style brown trousers. He was in happy baby position. So, I saw everything he used to make his baby happy. I remember feeling totally repulsed. I swore I would never do yoga.
Stage 3: Foundations
I went through intense psychoanalytical changes from the ages of 17-22. I see this stage as a slow-growth process of foundation building that dictates the rest of my life. While I became sexy, strong, and bountiful, I slowly developed into a pawn of social pressures that formulated negative personal habits. I loved my body and it loved me back. I was athletic, smart enough to study, excitable, and feminine. And yet I remember one scene, at the age of 17. My friends and I had come back from a late party and were eating bags of chips. One friend complained about her belly; another her butt. We all acknowledged that I had “the best body” and it was “because I worked out.” Comments like these incited my doing short exercise videos in my room after school, before dinner. This was the first sign of little rules and judgments that would come to rule my life and the false “sages” that my unwitting friends, family, and greater society would become.
And yet my first three years of college were magical. I studied, partied, ate, performed, and kissed to my heart’s desire. Very special friends became sages, people I was honored to know. Certain professors pushed me toward my best skills, challenging and empowering me. I discovered a love of group fitness, aerobics and, surprisingly, yoga. “Why do you like yoga if you’re so hyper all the time?” people asked. “You never stop moving.” Yoga just felt right.
A deep yogi instinct sent me to India to study-abroad. Yoga there was like jumping into the Mediterranean Sea on one of its colder beaches. For five months I practiced at least 3 times a week with a single teacher in an inner-city ashram. After a perfect puja and dripping bamboo canopies my slight yoga instructor forced my toes over my head, barked military-style Sanskrit at me, and guided me through the most ethereal whole-body connections I have ever experienced. At the end of classes I felt everything. One time, sexier than Lakshmi. Another, angrier than Kali. Sillier than Ganesh. More tired than The Buddha, under his tree.
I just wasn’t the same when I came back from India. It was like watching the sunset over a humid sea. Everything is there: pink, yellow, blue, grey. But it hovers behind a fuzzy shadow, its edges a little less crisp than science intended them to be. My sun was there, bright and beautiful, but lacking sincerity. In college the world began to tell me that I was physically “perfect.” To become that way I must be taking great care. To others, my God-given love of vegetables became “healthy eating.” My adoration of exercise became “staying fit.” “What exercises do you do to get legs like that?” These insinuations planted a deep guilt and doubt within me. Would cookies make me fat? Other people say they will… The very “should” became an internal compass. Fears about losing my body became rules about what exercises I should do. Food became calories that should be eaten, based on calories that should be “burned.”
Stage 4: Doing
And that’s how I became a human doing instead of a human being. By my final year in college I was a robot. Exercise, work, intern, homework, sleep, repeat. My sages weren’t real. They were the people on the cover of magazines. They were CEO’s whose 10-question interviews I read online. They were my friends who were as good at “faking it” as I was. My biggest sage was the impossible Emily I strived to become.
Any my yoga...what a shame. I only did yoga as a complement to a full day of exercise or on days when my body was too malnourished for Body Combat and I too guilty to relax. I was perpetually unhappy with my yoga classes, going into them with the expectation that I would experience a divine spiritual appeal that would make the class “worth it.” I blamed the teacher for leading to class poorly and usually thought they were too easy. I nearly always left for savasana. And when I did stay to lay, I didn’t pray. In fact, I often cried.
I fed myself on comments like, “How do you stay so thin?” and, “Are you a rock climber? The muscles in your arms are so developed”! and, “Why don’t you just eat a burger?” It’s a curious thing in American society that you can’t comment on an obese body but are at liberty to speak of a thin one. The world thought thin was better than fat. The thinnest were the best. I’m ashamed to type that sentence. But, it was my truth. I was a human doing, not a human being.
Stage 5: Planting
Enter one of the greatest sages of my life, Kim Merkel. She was a fitness instructor who tracked down my mother’s contact details. Kim, my mother, and most everyone else recognized my sickly stage. Kim and I first connected when I was the wildest aerobic attendee at her classes. People told us we acted alike. She offered my advice about getting certified in Group Fitness. She saw the irony in the fact that I was overexcericsing at the same time I was leading others to find their optimum fitness. Kim calling my mother was the last straw. I finally allowed me mother to be my sage when she walked me to the Eating Recovery Center.
After regaining the necessary weight, I was allowed to practice yoga. Oh, the sages…I was coaxed and cooed by teachers like Susanne and Carrie Varela. I smiled walking into the studio and smiled walking out. I felt small movements in my muscles. I made friends with other yogis. I was shy in my body. No one seemed to care. Although my period never returned, a physical and spiritual repair commenced. Through yoga and love, I grew into my current stage.
Stage 6: Being
In this stage, every day is a journey of connecting my being with my doing. I’m a tree that recognizes the soil it needs to thrive, although this recognition doesn’t make the soil easier to farm. Roots run deep. I hope one day I can have a conversation about “healthy eating” again without feeling resentful. I hope I don’t feel the need to defend myself for eating “unhealthy.” I hope that I won’t feel like I “should” exercise. However, I’m proud to write these sentences because they show my intention. So what if I can’t touch the ground. At least I am bending my way toward it, know what color it is, and am enjoying the stretch anyway.
Today my yoga practice and instruction are founded on this “journey.” I ask myself what my sages would do and try to make them proud, fictive observers and muses. I look at my yogis knowing that I cannot fathom what brings them to their mats. I stay true to myself as an instructor, knowing that there’s not much else I can do to make it “right.” When the yogi is ready, I will be there. Most importantly, I teach yoga because it helps me. It helps me feel graceful, energetic, strong, sexy, grounded, and confidant, the way I was born to feel. It shows me the unification between mind, body, and, soul. It’s me doing human being.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.