It all started at the beginning of January. After morning bjj training on Saturdays I used to have coffee with my best friend Arnaud at a small breakfast place in San Anselmo. That particular Saturday he was skiing with his family and when after training a group of bjj guys offered to join them for coffee, I agreed. They went to an açaí bowl place in Corte Madera and the coffee machine at that place was broken. The owners told me I could get coffee at a nearby book store.
The store was called Book Passage and as I learnt later from her books, this was the store that Isabel Allende loved to go to. I got my coffee and started rambling through the shelves and tables. It gives me a physical pleasure to be surrounded by books and page aimlessly through novels and poems. I get disoriented easily in the book stores, it is a sensation of a lot of people talking all at once, telling me their most dear ideas in a condensed and essential way. It overwhelms me, and I enjoy being overwhelmed. With a coffee in hand, I saw “A Long Petal of the Sea”, the latest book by Isabel Allende. I have never read any of her books, but my mom, when she visited us on Christmas, said that Isabel Allende lived in San Rafael. And that set a connecting dot. I picked the book and as I was reading the back cover, I remembered that we saw a photo exhibition about Winnipeg and Pablo Neruda when we were in Barcelona. This was the second connecting dot and I took the book to the register. The woman at the register told me that Isabel Allende was giving a chat next Monday at the Dominican University in San Rafael and signing her books there. We started talking, and I asked her if they had this book in Spanish by any chance, and she had it. And I ended buying it in Spanish, since it was the language it was written in.
I haven’t read fiction in a while, and when I started reading “Largo Pétalo de Mar” I found in this book everything I couldn’t find in people. The depth, the resilience, the different kind of love that I believed existed. After I finished her first book, I got another, “El Amante Japonés” (“The Japanese Lover”). This book was read mostly on Tahoe, during the ski week and finished on the first day of March, which was our last day skiing there this season. Right before the whole shelter in place happened in the Bay Area, her next book, “La Suma de los días” (“The Sum of Our Days”), arrived at my door. Each book made an impact. Each book had a phrase, a thought, a perspective that made me see life in a different way. It revealed things I knew, but haven’t realized. In “Largo Pétalo de Mar” it was the circle phrase: “If one lives long enough, circles close.” It was about being able to last long enough and to be present enough to see them close. If you die or if you evade or rush through things, you don’t get to see the closure. I needed to read the book to appreciate the fullness of the idea. In “El Amante Japonés” it wasn’t a phrase that took me captive, the whole book is a statement. I knew that love like that could exist, love that goes beyond social conventions, beyond what is possible, love that comes from inside the heart and is strong and pure and bypasses separation, distance, and silence. I just needed someone to remind me of that. And the book did.
In “La Suma de los días”, a memoir of author’s life in California, in Marin, there are three ideas that stayed with me. First one was her son’s view on life “It isn’t personal, everyone is responsible for his or her own feelings, life isn’t fair.” I thought that this is something I aspired to live by, but not always succeeded. Or almost always didn’t succeed, but tried hard and improved over the past years. I was taking things less personally (not just my option, in my yearly evaluation at work it was noted as the biggest improvement). I established a daily peer exercise to not feel responsible for other people’s feelings and take full responsibility for mine. And I enjoyed the fact that life isn’t fair and took the benefits it offered. If I had more than others, I was happy to give and help. If my friends had more than I, they shared generously and I learnt to accept. Life not being fair had its sliver lining. The second idea that stayed from this book was the author talking about her husband and their relationship, and after enumerating reasons why he loved her, she stumbles upon what was the most that she loved about him, and ends with “and for me I simply loved to sleep in one bed with him”. This is of course not the phrase she uses (and I am reading it in Spanish), but this is the gist of it. And I thought how important was just that, the fact that you have to love to sleep in one bed every night with that person. Everything else is “good to have”, but becomes “superfluous” if the love for closeness is not there.
It also brought more peace about my dating dry endings. I made an attempt to date through a dating site back in December and after a few coffees or lunches realized how much stress it was brining into my life. In those months I met four men, all of them different but sharing the same features, they were involved in their jobs, had built and sold companies (or were in the process), they were single, intelectual, lead an active lifestyle participating in variety of sports that were demanding and exciting, they liked talking to me and were clear about their intentions of forming a couple, they bent their schedules to find time for lunch or dinner, they weren’t pushy and at the same time their compliments and words made me feel feminine and beautiful (which I needed so much). And yet, I had zero desire to be physically close to them, forget about sleeping in the same bed. Coffees became stressful, lunches provoked anxiety and made me feel like I was constantly finding excuses why I couldn’t make it. Towards the end of January I decided to face how I felt and be clear with myself about it. I talked to each of them and told them it was a mistake on my side to think that dating was right for me and that I didn’t want to be in it any longer. I quit and they understood it well. And I felt so much lighter since then. And now, I couldn’t agree more with Isabel Allende: the sign of love was that you wanted to sleep with that person every night in one bed, hugged, and close to each other.
The third phrase from “La Suma de los días” that made me think was, “generally it is not the truth exposed what makes us vulnerable but the secrets we keep.” Again, I am rephrasing it here translated from Spanish. Since I’ve read it, this idea was rounding in my head and I talked about it to all the friends who called to check on me this week. It is very powerful. We always think that the truth will make us vulnerable. That if people know how we really act, who we really are, they will stop liking us and this will make us vulnerable. But it is our secrets that make us weak. Once you can face the truth, you become stronger, because you become a little bit more “one” with your core. The secrets peel you from your core. I slept with this thought for the past week. I took it with me on the frequent walks on the hill behind our house during the shelter in place. It was an essential idea to take on walks.
I started thinking about what I thought made me vulnerable. What were my secrets? Last week a friend called and he got talking about the credit cards and good credit score. And I had to admit that I was horrible handling money, I was afraid to have credit cards, because I couldn’t keep track of payments and would always ruin my credit score. It was a phone call, but I could feel my face blush as I said it. And after I said it, I realized that he was very understanding and emphatic about it. I almost felt that he liked me more because of it. And now that I’m writing this, I think he did like me more, but not because I couldn’t handle finances, but because I didn’t try to hide it or disguise it.
The books took me through the months of January and February, and with them I transitioned into March with its pandemic and shelter in place. While a big portion of the population was losing their businesses and jobs, the accelerator I worked at was doubling down. Everyone suddenly needed to move their communication online and we were the ones where all the orgs turned to. I had more work now than I ever have had before, working from early mornings till midnights. With more work my tech skills ramped up as well and from one day to another I was leading teams and making complex builds. Sometimes I lost sense of what was driving me. Was it to achieve a high metric or to actually move a needle for people who were suffering due to the pandemic? We achieved high metrics due to the context and to the lean builds that the team has perfected over the years. And when I believed that we were actually helping people then my long work hours didn’t seem much. When the pure metric rush took over, then I would feel how much my eyes hurt from the screen. I learnt how to type all my emails with eyes closed to get some rest, and use the sight for the builds.
There was food in the stores, the people were calm and friendly, kids school has moved online and all the sports and activities were paused for a while. Overall the days in March were very calm and quiet. My son was playing trumpet, doing extra math, and watching Gordon Ramsay videos on MasterClass. I had to promise him we would go shopping for pans and knifes after the shelter in place was over. He took the cooking thing seriously and abrasively. My daughter kept getting high grades in school, got accepted with a full scholarship into the Tech Trek Summer Camp at Stanford, kept running her Astronomy club on zoom, reading books on astrophysics and space, and drawing non-stop. The house was peaceful and serene, and I don’t think there was even one argument in the past month.
To keep our lifestyle a bit healthy I set a routine of two daily walks for each of us. We would go up the hill where the houses ended and then down the hill among shallow green grass and oak trees where no hiking path existed. Kids enjoyed this freedom of going on the walks by themselves for the first time in their lives and I took mine in the early mornings. There were deers, coyotes, and all type of birds on the hills. I saw them on every walk. As the weeks passed we got used to each other. Now the deers didn’t stop chewing when they saw me. And I would stay still and watch them for a while. The birds would make all kind of noises on the sunny days and they were quieter when it rained. On the walks I would think how I was part of this world. We are all part of it, we are part of the stars, of the earth, of the trees, we were all made together from the same matter that the stars are made of. This is why it is so important to look at the stars and never lose the perspective of how we are a part of a bigger whole. I would enjoy not feeling anything, but just being “the part” of the world. And I noticed how not feeling anything but just being a part was the baseline for my days now. It was serene, it allowed space for work, it allowed space for listening to others, it allowed space for love from inside the heart.
And so I went daily to walk on the hill that had no hiking paths and sometimes I took my breakfast coffee on my walks and I started to refer to it as breakfasts with deers.