A Day In The Life Of Me — May 1980s

The engines’ steady drone shifts, and the plane begins its descent.

This is it, she thinks. I’m really doing this.

coverBut nerves and self-doubt challenge excitement for her attention. Nerves win out as she notices the hands on either side of her, clenched on the armrests. The fathers of her roommate seated by the window and the just-graduated college student on the aisle are both  pilots.

A turbulent dip flips her stomach.

“Oh, my God,” the roommate says.

“What the hell is he doing?” the new graduate mutters.

Her pulse quickens. You mean this isn’t normal?

At twenty-two, this is only her third flight, her second out of the US. God and the Fates willing, she and her companions are about to land in Honduras, where they’ll spend part of the summer working with their graduate advisor on a Maya archaeological site.

Over the next few minutes, she focuses on the rapidly approaching mountains and her destination—the narrow valley between them. But she can’t block out the white knuckles and faces of the young woman and man with her. At least she can pretend her quick, dry swallows are for the changing pressure in her ears. An image forces its way into her mind’s eye—her advisor giving the archaeologist’s translation of SAHSA airline’s acronym, Stay At Home, Stay Alive.

After a few bounces on the tarmac, the wheels find traction. Honduran passengers, some with rosaries in hand, make the sign of the cross and whisper, “Gracias, Madre de Dios.” Contrary to her friends’  expectations, this landing apparently is normal.

Excitement reclaims control as they make their way through customs. Her gaze flits about the airport and its occupants, wanting to see everything at once, while her brain struggles to translate the unfamiliar background of Spanish, both spoken and written.

This Midwestern girl from a mid-sized town has no experience to draw from. From her studies, she knows Honduras is a poor country. It’s an island of relative political stability in an era of brutal Central American civil conflicts, proxy wars for the US and USSR in their battle for world dominance. Still, her brain continues its quest for context. Who are the Honduran travelers around her? Normal citizens? Or the ruling elite? Do soldiers armed with M16s always patrol the airport?

Alone with the customs agent, she stands exposed. Tall, with auburn hair and fair skin, no one will mistake her for a native. At least the blonde, blue-eyed girls will draw more of the attention this summer. But for now, she’s center stage. She shares the first name of a sultry American actress, and the Honduran official calls her by the other woman’s name while checking her papers.

stamps

When finished, she hurries to rejoin her friends. Excited chatter from the group surrounds her as they wait for the others to clear customs. Many on the crew are from different universities. Introductions are made, and their shared language and middle class American upbringing are comforting in this foreign land.

Finally, everyone is present, and they climb into the rented van that will take them to another mountain valley near the Guatemalan border. She eagerly take in the sights—Spanish-style churches, colorful stucco homes and businesses. But there’s also an unmistakable aura of urban decay and poverty. Corrugated metal shacks also line the streets of San Pedro Sula. Graffiti covers many cinder-block walls. She’s rarely seen such street art back home and doesn’t understand it even there. What should she make of these strange symbols and words?

One artist, though, understands how language-challenged many Americans are. He sends his message in English:

Yanqui Go Home

***

Why this particular day? Because it was the first day I truly thought I was on my way to my future career. If you had asked me at the airport what I would be today, I would have said, “A tenured professor of Anthropology specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology.” But life has a way of shifting the path under our feet, doesn’t it?

How about you? Was there an “I’m really doing this” moment in your life?

69 thoughts on “A Day In The Life Of Me — May 1980s

  1. Nice one! Life really has a way of shifting things. Sometimes it pushes it to an extreme of our initial thoughts, at other times, things shift in directions that we could never had imagined.

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    • Well, I probably chose one of the “big” days in my life to start with. 😉 I thought it might catch people’s attention. And I hoped presenting it as a story would work. It’s a way to keep working on my “fiction” while presenting real events.

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  2. There were two major events for me. One when I first started teaching. A class I had: Year 10 – 15 yrs teaching them society and environment/social sciences. 15 boys and 6 girls and they struggled academically and had behavioural issues. I thought what the heck did I get myself into. The second was resigning from teaching to follow my dream as a writer. I have moments where I wonder if I am on the right track.
    Great post. Thanks for sharing your experiences 🙂

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    • I am in the process and have actually asked myself this in recent weeks. Little did you know this would be comforting to read right about now 🙂 Thanks.

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      • I hope all the changes go smoothly! Sometimes it’s easier to make those big decisions when we’re younger—and maybe don’t know any better. 😉 But the reward can be sweeter when we’re older and can better appreciate the experience.

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    • Starting our first career, changing careers, leaving a secure career to pursue a dream—those are all huge steps to take, aren’t they? They may not lead where we expected, but taking the chance is the only way to give our dreams a chance. I’m glad you and others have enjoyed this first post about some of the events in my life. 🙂

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  3. My moment was when my daughter was a month old and my mother, who had come to help me with the birth and settling in, was going home. As I sat up in bed the night before my mother left, nursing my child, I realized I was now the mom. xoxoM

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    • Thanks. 🙂 I found it was easier to talk about me if I presented the experience as a story. And that helps with my fiction writing, too. So maybe these “personal” posts can do double duty as writing exercises….

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  4. Loved this, JM! This sounded like the beginning of a novel and a story I wanted to know more about. Hubby lived in Honduras for awhile when he was a young man in the Air Force. What a wonderful experience for you — how exciting! Let’s see — I guess my, “Am I really doing this?” was traveling all over the U.S. by myself on business and from time to time going on short vacays by myself. That was a big deal for me. What a great story! Thanks for sharing that with us. (P.S. What music was popular then? Are there any songs that stand out? I always associate milestones with music.)

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    • There were some American bases in Honduras while I was there. It was during the Nicaraguan civil war, and the rebel Contras were also based on the Honduran side of the border. Interesting time. 🙂

      Traveling around the country on my own would be nerve-wracking! The preparation for the few trips I’ve done like that always stressed me out. I do better with at least one person with me.

      The music we heard most was a mix of Central American popular music and American Top 20 music. Think Madonna, Wham!, and Whitney Houston. One album I didn’t hear there was the Clash’s “Sandinista.” 😉

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  5. I really like how you captured the moment here. I think my “I’m really doing this” moments have been around moving, when I’ve moved to a different country, or a different part of the country, those moments all seem huge when your environment is going to be completely different.

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. 🙂 Your memoir post and suggestion for me to do one really sparked my Muse for this. It seemed easier to write about myself if I did it more as a story. And that’s also good for improving my fiction, too.

      Moving halfway across the US was a huge step for me. I can’t imagine moving to another country all together. Of course, the move east was probably one of the best decisions my husband and I ever made. Sometimes the biggest rewards require sacrifice and a leap of faith.

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  6. I enjoyed reading this glimpse into your past. I know the fear and excitement that come from living in a foreign country for a time. My “I’m really doing this” moment was after high school, when I was 18, heading to Paris to be an Au Pair girl (flew to Amsterdam and then took an overnight train to Paris). I had $80 in my purse, no credit card, and an anxious hope that the family the agency set me up with (in a time before the Internet) would be waiting for me when I arrived. I keep meaning to write a post on my experience. You’ve inspired me to move it higher on the list of topics. 🙂

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    • I bet I’m not the only one who would enjoy hearing about your French adventure! I was nervous enough at 22 even with a group of students around me. I don’t think I could have taken off on my own at 18. 🙂

      Oh, those pre-Internet days. Where I was in Honduras, there were no telephones yet. The only way to call out of the town was on the police station’s two-way radio setup. And “reliable” 24-hour electricity had only been there a couple of years. I shouldn’t give too many more details—best to save them for another post or two!

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  7. Loved this story of your life. My “I’m really doing this” moment was when I got to Jerusalem the first day. A small group of us took off from the university center before orientation the next morning because we were anxious to explore the new country. We had several crazy mishaps and close run-ins with people that had similar idea to that graffiti-ed logo you saw–Yankees, go home! Unknowingly, we had broken several of the ‘safety’ protocols we were supposed to exercise (we learned of them the next morning and gave each other in our ‘fortunate’ group meaningful looks of “Yeah, we know now!”)

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    • Jerusalem would be an amazing place to visit. So much history that has shaken the world for millennia. Definitely a place to stay on your toes and be aware of your surroundings! Like Honduras, it’s a place where many Americans will stand out. That was the hardest thing for me to get comfortable with. I didn’t stand out in my hometown. But I sure did in Latin America! I’m glad nothing serious happened to you and your fellow adventurous students!

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      • Yes, we were blessed that nothing happened to us since we were very stupid. Now I know that, but was too dumb at the time to realize how stupid we were. And yes, I didn’t like standing out; I’m much more comfortable in the background watching others without them noticing.

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  8. You really are a writer. So intense – so many wonderful phrases and delightful ways of saying the ordinary.
    ” turbulent dip flips her stomach” – everyone’s experienced this – putting it at the beginning signals the rest of the piece…”quick dry swallows”
    “quest for context” “exposed” at customs.
    Just darn good writing.
    Oh, like you – seeing the grim military expertly holding automatics on each corner, Someone saying “Oh, don’t look at them or try to talk with the soldiers in black – they can and do shoot without question”…and the barbed wire spiraled across the university walls..the university that had been closed.
    The world shifts

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    • Some experiences make for better stories than others. 😉 And are easier to write in a “fictional” style. This is one of them. This naive, inexperienced Midwestern girl did some growing up that summer, even if it wasn’t obvious to people around her. The soldiers were everywhere, and they’ll show up in more stories. I’d never seen many American soldiers in the US. To be surrounded by military personnel even in civilian settings was unnerving!

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  9. You do know how to write tension into a scene–well crafted. Now I wonder what the shift was for you–was it really the landing and first glimpse of this foreign land? What else happened? See, that’s the mark of a great storyteller–leaves readers hanging and wanting more.
    My shift occurred when I couldn’t find work as a therapist right out of grad school and ended up working for a corporation as a trainer and organization development specialist. Still working with people, but at a much different scale. The writing–that was always there in me.

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    • Ah, yes. The job market when we graduate. That played a big role in my career path and my husband’s. But so did events and experiences in grad school and Latin America. Did it start on that first day of that first trip? Even now, I couldn’t say for sure. But it might have. The unexpected path has turned out well, and I like where I am now.

      Even though I did well with creative writing in my English courses, the novel ideas didn’t hit me until a few years ago. And now I feel like I’m doing a better job telling stories in shorter formats. I’m hoping this will translate to the current WIP as I try to finalize it and make it the best story it can be. Or maybe I’ll find a niche with a series of mystery novellas for Meghan. We’ll just have to see….

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  10. I really enjoyed this post. I had no idea you were scared at the time. You seemed very confident and excited. I admit that I was a little worried about your going because I didn’t know much about Honduras. I’ve heard some of your stories from that summer, but I never heard this one. What a white-knuckle journey that must have been! I felt like I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    • I’ve usually been good at hiding my fears and doubts behind a brave face. And so people who know me are sometimes surprised when I talk about them. On this day, I landed in a foreign world, not knowing what to expect. I also learned ignorance can be bliss—sitting next to people on a plane who know something about flying can really be a mixed blessing!

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  11. Great post. For me it was the day I kissed my family goodbye in England and left for Australia with all my possessions squashed into one suitcase, 21 years old. When I returned, it was only ever for a holiday. Australia has been my home for 19 years now so I guess I really did do it!

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    • Wow, yes you did! Moving from one country to another is such a huge step. My maternal grandparents came to the US when my mother was a small child, and I don’t think my grandmother ever felt “at home” again. And politics meant they couldn’t go back to the old country. So she never saw her mother or old friends again.

      I hope your family has had chances to come visit you and enjoy the sun and sights of Australia!

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  12. Beautifully written, JM! I felt nervous reading about the plane flight (I hate flying!). What an adventure this trip must have been for you.

    I’ve had several “I’m really doing this” moments, but the first one to come to mind was when I packed up my belongings and 3 children and moved 3,000 miles away from the town I’d lived in for most of my life 😉

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    • I’ve never been a fan of flying, either. If anyone else had been sitting next to me, I probably would’ve thought it was normal turbulence. But apparently not! Hey, at 22 we’re resilient, though, right? Once we landed, it was back to trying to take in everything at once while still being nervous about my new surroundings.

      A 3,000-mile move is huge! There’s no “quick and easy” trip back to see family and friends. The 700+ miles between me and my family are tough enough. But we shouldn’t let fear or nerves keep us from taking advantage of new chances and opportunities in a new environment, right?

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  13. JM, what a great story! I’ve been on a few of those flights (who hasn’t?) and you nailed it! You are such a versatile writer! This voice is so different from the Meghan stories, but works so well at conveying the fear, anxiety and anticipation of such a daunting and exciting experience! I can’t wait to hear more 🙂

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    • Whew, good to hear the voice comes across as different because it should! Even though I wrote this to sound like fiction, it’s still a real account of my life. So I shouldn’t sound like Meghan, who’s never worked outside of the US. 😉 I think we’ll see a few more posts about this particular summer, which will hopefully trigger some ideas for other bits about me….

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  14. Neat idea for a post, JM. And a good way to keep up the creative writing even if it isn’t fictional. Maybe your characters will be envious that you’re writing about yourself and decide to give you some more ideas. 😉

    One of my big “Am I really doing this” moments was when I went to NYC by myself for a Writer’s Digest conference to pitch my novel. I took a bus from NH to Boston during a blizzard at 2 am, then hopped on a train that took me to NYC. It was a big deal for me because I suffer from social anxiety and cities intimidate me. But once I got through it I realized that I can do anything if I want it bad enough. Prior to that moment, I had very little faith in my writing and even less in myself. It was a pivotal moment that changed the course of my writing life.

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    • I can only hope that some characters decide this is enough about me. 😉 Meghan is tossing out some little bits and pieces of potential stories, and I’m doing my best to encourage her to do more.

      I don’t think I could go to New York on my own. It’s still intimidating when I have to go to DC alone, and I’m comfortable with the Metro system and have an idea where I’m going. But a strange city and interacting with complete strangers and no one I know with me? I’m not so sure I could overcome my social anxiety the way you did, no matter how much I might want to!

      But I’m glad you found faith in your writing, because having read some of your work, I can honestly say you should believe in it. 🙂

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  15. Fabulous story, JM! I love the little details that make this so personal (especially the SAHSA acronym). More often than we might expect, new avenues open up without us realizing. But the steps we take that we know will lead us on new adventures are often difficult – congratulations on seeing this one through! 🙂 Do you think you’ll post more of these Young Indiana JM Adventures in the future? 😉

    I’ve traveled my whole life, so crossing distances has never felt particularly eventful, for me. Instead, my very first “WTF am I doing?” moment came when I was in college. It was the first time I’d been at a co-ed school in four years, and my first time away from my family’s influence (and judgment). He was beautiful, sweet, smart. I tried to be sophisticated in my seduction…but, in reality, I was probably pretty awkward. For a Catholic school girl who’d grown up in a small town in upstate New York, sneaking into a boy’s bed (with the help of his suitemate) was not something I’d ever even imagined I’d do. But – despite my pattering heart and the tingling of my nerves I can still feel when I think about slinking through that dark room in just my underpants and an Oxford shirt borrowed from said suitemate – I wouldn’t want to change that moment, even now.

    We say our choices are what make our lives unique. It’s funny how often we forget about a lot of them, though: the impact they have on us and the people around us. Thanks for helping me remember I’m more than just the person I am right now today. 🙂

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    • A life full of travel and adventures like sneaking into a young man’s bed…. Wow, Mayumi, have you thought about writing memoirs or a fictional account of your experiences?! 😉 There are some experience I couldn’t write about—in part because my mom reads my blog and she doesn’t know about them! But also, a girl’s gotta have some secrets, right? 😉

      My grad school days were probably the most interesting from a reader’s perspective, and I think I’ll do at least a few more posts like these. There are also some historical family stories that I might be able to turn into some creative stories. Immigrating to the colonies/US, ancestors who lived down the road from Abraham Lincoln…. There could be some good prompts stemming from my genetic past.

      Writing about this day brought back memories I hadn’t thought about in years. Graduate fieldwork in Latin America added up to less than a year of my life. And yet it played an important role in the development of my adult character and the choices I’ve made. Life’s an interesting journey. Even when we think we’re standing still, we’re moving in ways we don’t always recognize.

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      • That incident sounds a lot sexier than it really was, trust me. 😉

        I love how writing can bring back the feelings of those memories. I hope you revisit those times again – it was a great journey to take with you!

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  16. So you are an interesting character after all! 🙂 Great details on the scariness of the flight and the trip and then everything you were able to see. I can’t even think of an am I really doing this moment so that just proves you’re a more interesting character than I am. Your descriptions of Honduras made me think of going to Jamaica when I was in college though – the places people lived, the poverty, and then there was a billboard out in the middle of nowhere saying something like “be nice to the tourists.”

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    • Go to a lot of tourist destinations, and poverty is often only a few steps off the main paths. My husband and I saw that in the Bahamas a few years ago. How some people can happily ignore those harsh realities is beyond me. Luckily, there are people like my nephew, who went to Haiti last year as a volunteer with a medical group and decided to help pay for a young girl’s primary education.

      To be honest, this probably qualifies as the most interesting part of my life from an outsider’s perspective. I doubt trips to archaeological sites in Midwestern cornfields would get the same reaction—especially when there weren’t any unexpected skeletons in the cellar…. 😉

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      • Those archaeological sites in Midwestern cornfields sound exciting to me! That’s great that your nephew did that. Those are the kinds of things that should be in the news more often.

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  17. Wow, nice to meet JM circa 1980s. 🙂 I had a few of those days. I really believed I would be working on U.S.-China relations. First when I landed a job at a nonprofit near Capital Hill in 1999, then again when I started my Masters in Pacific International Affairs. Neither worked out as I thought. 😉 But I still remember the thrill of thinking this is the first step in the rest of my career.

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  18. 1980s me did play a role in sculpting who 2013 me is. 😉 I suspect most of us in the US end up in a different place than we expected, whether in relationships, careers, or geography. Most college students change majors at least once. Few of us stay with our first job. Many move to a different town or state from where we grew up. I’ve made all those changes. And I know my 22-year-old self never dreamed she’d be writing fiction today. And now you’ll soon add the thrill of seeing your first novel published!

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    • Thanks, Andrea! I plan to do some occasional posts like this, keeping up my creative writing while sharing some of my experiences. (Hard as that is for me to do!)

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    • Wow, Bhutan? That must have been an incredible trip, especially at such a young age. My first international trip was to France with my high school French club at 16. That was eye-opening in a “baby steps” manner. Seeing new countries and meeting people there is an experience I wish everyone could share. It does tend to broaden our perspectives and make us think.

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