I sit down on my balcony to write, two wicker chairs and a wooden table overlooking my neighbor’s courtyards, greenery that I contemplate almost every day. The one balcony I sweep with a broom when I'm feeling courageous, and the one where nasturtiums grow. The one where I soak up my first rays of light every morning. Today I know I'm going to finish this thing I'm about to start. I had decided I'd send out this newsletter every end of the month, or the beginning of the next. I ask myself why I never committed to a specific day. Maybe that's exactly why I don't always do it then - not the beginning nor the end. Apparently, I'm expecting some difficulty to arise and prevent me from honoring the promise, so I give myself space (that's what I tell myself at least.) Because maybe I’ll be too busy, or too unfocused, or have an anxious episode. Which - I realize as I write this - is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I didn't write last month's newsletter because I was in Portugal, staying over with family. In the city where I was born and raised, let me add. I started the letter tho; I started. I grabbed my mom's tablet and sat down at the only cafe I could think of where I would feel less uncomfortable doing work on an electronic device. It's a provincial Portuguese town, friends. I usually feel like an alien there.
What I wrote then was a long introduction on how my parents ended up living in Torres Vedras in the '80s (my father got employed there;) how my father made my mom choose between having a second child or finishing her degree in medicine (I won;) and how they never moved out of aforementioned town for the duration of their marriage (27 years) even though none of them liked living there (they longed for their lost life in Mozambique from where they departed in 1975.) I'm a child of all this. I am also a child of a motorway. In 1996, 12-year-old Ana became an almost-Lisboner, with the capital city at a miraculous half-hour distance by car from her hometown. At the time we went to the big city as a family almost exclusively to visit my grandparents in the Anjos neighborhood, but still.
Mom still lives in the family house she got to keep after the divorce, exactly 20 years ago. During the dramatic period before the legal dissolution of the marriage, I almost burned down the house albeit unintentionally. I went for an evening walk with the dog (RIP Benny) and left a bunch of candles burning on top of a wicker cabinet (I know) thinking it was just ten minutes and I'd be back. When I did get back and saw a monster of a fire department vehicle in front of my building and a parade of men in uniforms going in and out hastily, I still had no clue what the hell had happened in the half-hour interval I had been away. The charred areas of the house - which were mostly circumscribed to my sleeping room and my father's office - worked like a true metaphor for everything that was going down in that household. Or a mirror. After that, my father moved out and took his beloved BMW and his scorched library along. My mom got very ill in the process too - breast cancer in the house - because misery loves company. I was already having panic attacks since the year before *all of this* so I lived through the divorce and the fire and the illness and the all-encompassing drama in a haze. When I turned 18 I had already made a habit of getting very very drunk every weekend, and being always the last to leave the party which made me quite a popular character among my peers. The music, the alcohol, and the attention chased the panic away and, on the surface, I was victorious.
Then I moved to Lisbon. The best years of my Portuguese life were most definitely the ones I spent in the capital, where I started therapy and a new life. I entered a state of bliss during my Lisbon years that I hadn't known before. Lisbon was where I belonged. I got myself two cats and a boyfriend. And I was happy until I was not. And when I realized I had had enough of the big city I decided to move to Amsterdam without ever having set foot here before. I took the cats (yes, the two black fluffs from my Instagram) and remained friends with the ex. Amsterdam became home, solace, and a safe space.
For years, going back to my hometown gave me anxiety attacks so I avoided it as much as I could. I'd stay in Lisbon instead, and keep visits to the familial home as short as possible. I'd spent time with mom in the Netherlands instead of Portugal. I'd even avoid mentioning the town's name. There is this lingering state of drama in my family that is all the most intense when people get together: simple things get complicated, events of the past resurface in idle conversation, people may get excitable, moody, unpredictable. I don't know if it's my family in specific or if it's something Portuguese, but I suspect it's both. And yet, there I was again, this July, in the town where all trauma started, having to navigate family dynamics and, yet, not having anxiety attacks.
I don't know how that happened but one thing I can tell you: anti-anxiety medication works (SSRIs.) If you do the internal work, that is. While in Torres Vedras I stuck to this ritual of having my morning coffee alone at a cafe while writing my morning pages. This helped me process whatever had happened the day before, as well as create some distance. As a side effect, I started getting more mindful of my surroundings and actually appreciating them (look at the green hills in the distance! how charming the old white unkempt buildings! the vintage lettering above that drugstore is the best!) I also found myself enjoying the slow pace of local life. The first of my cafe days brought me, too, a serendipitous encounter with an old friend who is a writer and a father now and whose Instagram bio - quite refreshingly - states none of those things. We covered the main events in our lives from the past ten years in ten minutes. It was one of those animated interactions that stop only because there were four sets of eyes waiting on him - his family - a talk that would otherwise have lasted until the early hours of the morning like in the old days. He promised to send me his books. Back at my mom's place, I found Jurassic analog photographs of both of us in carton boxes, (summers, NYE celebrations) and a handwritten letter he sent me when we were both in Uni - me in Évora, him in Lisbon - along with the first chapter of a novel which, he told me later, he had no recollection to ever have written.
Last year, while I was going through my cancer treatments, I visited a girlfriend from my party years in Torres Vedras that I hadn't seen since I moved abroad. She told me how hurt she had felt when, all of a sudden, I took distance from the friend group, more than ten years ago. I, on the other hand, revealed how, during my Lisbon years, I had to untangle myself from the teenage character I had created: this über sociable party animal perpetually clubbing until the break of dawn. I told her how constricting that identity made me feel: there just didn't seem to be any room for me to be anything else beyond the party's soul. And I also told her, for the first time, about my anxiety issues, - which I had kept an absolute secret growing up - and how all that alcohol and overexcitement was just me dodging the pain. We talked everything over dinner and, unlike our convos when we were adolescents, we were brutally honest. While in the past my hometown friends had no idea about my struggles, now I was an open book. She opened up too and talked about the abuse she had put up with during her previous relationship because of her miserable self-worth. We talked, as well, about everyone we hung out with back in the day. Remember Mr. Popular, the surfer boy? His parents had divorced, and his dad went to prison. Also, did I not know about that friend who's still getting wasted as we all did as teenagers? Turns out she's always dealt with a maze of family issues. What about your brother, how's he doing, I inquired. Oh, no, she didn't have any contact with him anymore, nor did her parents, because of some soap opera that went down when he became a father.
I grew up convinced that my life was so out of the ordinary, feeling so lonely in my pain, so miserable in my inability to feel at home with my family. But the conversation with my friend suggests that all of us were going through some shit back in the day and pretending we had it all figured out. I was startled, not because I found the revelation unlikely, but because of the sheer degree of loneliness that we all had had to endure. Did most of us in our hometown grow up feeling inadequate? - I wondered at the end of that dinner. My friend and I both agreed that yes, most of us did. These realizations occurred to me again, one day in July, while sipping on my espresso after journaling, Torres Vedras street life rolling around me. While chubby women carried grocery bags, men in dungarees delivered carton boxes, people stopped for chit-chat, I reflected on how secure it felt to be a foreigner now, comfortable in my skin, indifferent to outward pressures. A grounded sense of self affords many freedoms.
Someone told me nasturtiums are edible. My downstairs neighbor is gardening, his five-year-old daughter brings him a rack, a water bucket. Perched on top of the wooden railing, the cats observe. This warm feeling of gratitude washes slowly over me. Not getting enmeshed with other people's dysregulated emotions is a wonderful ability, I think, as well as not letting yourself get dragged into the drama that doesn’t belong to you. I think that I’ll make a salad for lunch - with nasturtiums - and I also think of the situations I still find triggering when I'm with family and how all those things are small and mundane in the grand scheme of things. I think of the messages I got from online friends on Instagram, telling me how challenging - sometimes downright draining - it is for them to visit their families. I think that I'm not special - for better or worse - and how freeing that is. And I think too of that dinner with my girlfriend, of handwritten letters and drunken analog photos in carton boxes. I think of the first chapter of the forgotten novel, and those 10 minutes of impromptu talk with an old friend, so full and warm, and the books I received in my home in Amsterdam, precious artifacts now sitting on my shelf in the living room. Those things matter. Torres Vedras also gave me things that matter.
I finish the newsletter, as I told myself I would. My life is not unpredictable anymore, nor dependent on other people's fluctuating moods. I don't need to remain vaguely fearful of commitment: these newsletters are to be written every 30th of the month from now on. I do - and give myself - what I need. I trust myself. I am dependable. I am not afraid to be here, in this skin, anymore. Torres Vedras has a place in my story, as does Lisbon. Amsterdam changed me, writing changed me and cancer changed me more. Its teachings gave me the opportunity to heal and keep healing, over and over again. And that's what I do with these letters. My healing does not belong exclusively to me. It belongs to my family, and to Rita, Inês, João, Luís. And now it belongs to you too.