Someone asked me recently if I’ve been writing. He asked me why when I told him no and I said, “Because I’m happy.” Saying that was equal parts true, false, and made me feel like a phony. It’s true because I’m pleased to share that for the most part, I am happy. It’s also false because I simply can be too lazy to write sometimes. And it made me feel like a phony because what kind of writer only writes when she’s not happy? That’s not how this works. Anne Lamott would be disappointed.

I’ve felt busier than normal the past couple months (summers are typically that way), so I’ve been winding down my days with Netflix instead of with a book or writing. Not that Netflix doesn’t have its place, but if I recall, I dubbed 2019 “The Year of Tessa.” Watching Netflix every night doesn’t do much for Tessa. Reading does. Writing does. And now that I’m sitting down to write, it’s very clear to me that the reason I haven’t been is because I’ve been avoiding things.

I’m in a book club with my two roommates and a handful of other friends. One of my roommates chose the last book: Ohio by Stephen Markley. I was excited to read it because I’d admittedly only read one of the four other books that had been selected for book club so far this year. My other roommate came home a few days after the book was selected, excited that he was almost finished with it. He has a gnarly commute and listens to books on tape, so he whizzes through them. He told me that it was sad and I said, “Like a good sad?” He cocked his head a bit and said, “I guess? Not really. I think just sad,” at which point my subconscious perked up and said, “Mmk, I’ll pass.” According to my Kindle, I read 10% of it before I let the digital library loan expire.

I started to think about why I kept putting the book down every time I picked it up. I had the time to read – I just wasn’t reading. Generally as a rule of thumb, I avoid really sad movies or shows, attributing it to everyday life being sad enough all by itself without some dumb show also bumming me out, and suddenly I found myself doing it with a book. Avoiding sad things doesn’t keep sad things from happening, though. Sad things happen. All the time. I know this. Just a couple months ago, both of my grandpas died within 18 hours of each other. My breath shortens slightly when I think too much about that. And I think I wasn’t reading Ohio because I wanted to avoid any additional sadness, and that’s honestly the lamest shit I’ve ever let myself do. A few months after John died, I went to see The Big Sick, in which there’s an aerial shot of the main character’s love interest lying in a hospital bed with the exact same breathing apparatus that John had while he was dying. I handled that. Why can’t I handle a sad book, two and a half years later, because my grandpas died?

I started writing this to say that I’m happy and suddenly I’m writing about sadness. Funny how that happens. I am happy though. To quote myself, “Happiness and grief are not mutually exclusive; I can feel both pure joy and grief at the same time.” (Once in college, I wrote an essay about Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with phrenology and my professor for the class gave me an article that he wrote about EAP for the Harvard Review to reference in my essay, and I imagine the way people feel when I quote myself is kind of like how I felt when he did that. But alas, here we are.) Anyway. Avoiding is for the birds. Reading and writing and feeling things is for everyone else. Sorry, birds.

Grief’s a bitch

There, I said it.

We’re just over a week out from the 2-year anniversary of John’s death. Boggles the mind. The last two years have been a series of ups and downs, and I’d venture to say more ups than downs. I’ve tried my hardest to make the best out of a shitty situation and on a lot of days, I feel really good about the things I’ve done. Like Leon Bridges sings, “I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”

But some days, I feel really fucking awful. This month has been particularly difficult, which is something I thoroughly didn’t anticipate. When I first started reading about the stages of grief, most sources advised me against believing the myth that once we pass one stage, we’re done with it forever and can simply move onto the next. Good advice, I daresay. I don’t care to remember what all the stages are, but I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced every single one every day this month, and it’s made doing normal life things that much more difficult. My income is essentially dependent on how much work I can produce, and if every week were like last week, I’d be in poverty.

Luckily my parents have provided me (once again) with a free place to rest my head for a few months, so I’m not in the dire situation I would be in if I had more bills to pay. I’m extremely fortunate in that regard and am very aware that many who experience emotional hardships don’t have the luxury of taking a few days off to recoup. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Life is heavier right now for a few reasons. First, February in the Midwest objectively sucks, and I know I’m not the only one feeling the emotional toll of perpetual gray skies. It’s hitting me harder this year than most, probably because I spent a year living in the tropics and have run out of patience for this bullshit weather. Once you get a taste for how it can be, it becomes harder to tolerate how it actually is.

Second, I’m 27 years old, balancing three jobs, and living with my parents. That does something to one’s self-worth. If you had asked me two years ago where I’d be today, I would’ve told you I’d be living in a bright and airy apartment in Chicago with my husband John and a lot of animals, down the hall from Nate and Gab. I would’ve told you that I’d be working my way up in the marketing world and making a good living. I would’ve told you that I’d be happy. I can honestly say that today, I’m not happy. I’m actually pretty unhappy. I have really happy moments and make an effort to fill the open spaces with people who make me happy, but overall, I’m unhappy. Admitting that to myself is liberating in a way, letting me see myself for what I really am in this moment rather than lying to myself in the hopes that it’ll make me feel better. I don’t need to be happy right now. It’s okay to be unhappy sometimes.

Third, I’m single. I’d like to think that I’m a badass independent woman who don’t need no man, but I actually really do. I know that I don’t need a man, but I want one. I want to fully love someone who fully loves me back again. I want that unconditional, (im)perfect love. I want someone to see my flaws and pull me closer instead of push me away. I want to rest in the truth that I am once again safe in my partner’s arms, without question that it’s forever. I believe that I’ll find this again one day, but not really knowing how or when or who is scary.

Also, I broke a toe on Friday via slamming it into a metal chair, but honestly it’s been a really exciting experience for me because it’s my first broken bone. She hurts, but you know, purple looks good on her, so it’s fine.

Through this murky month, I have found little glimmers of joy, as I am wont to do. I really love my job at School on Wheels and have begun to formulate a plan to get my future self where she wants to be. I discovered a grapefruit sparkling water at Trader Joe’s that makes me happier than sparkling water should. I spend time with friends who I love so dearly and who make me laugh a lot. Whenever I have a moment of, “I gotta get out of here,” I think about them and I change my mind. My community is the reason I came back and as always, they continue to show up when I need it most. I also have some exciting travel plans with various gal pals coming up over the next few months, the one thing I’ve been spending most of my money on since I don’t have rent right now. No ragrets.

I stumbled across the image below on Instagram the other day and it brought me a great sense of calm. It’s important to be reminded that grief’s a bitch and healing isn’t linear. All of this has been entirely out of my control, something I need to acknowledge more often. All I can do is my best and if my best is making it from my bed to the couch some days, that’s excellent. Powering through pain is possible, but sometimes it’s better to rest in it, knowing that happier days are ahead. I’ll keep rooting for that sun to come out, running with my motivated moments when they come, and resting when I can’t because this too shall pass.

healing isn't linear

Complaining is Boring

It’s cold. It’s dry. It’s grey. It’s February in Indiana. For some reason, every February, we all act surprised at how much it sucks here. But none of this is new to us and I’m going to say something pretty outrageous: complaining about it is really boring. But I suppose it gives us all something to bond over.

I’m going to take a minute though to complain about something that I know I’m not the only one fed up with: potholes. Normally I would never write something like this, but today I experienced a pothole-caused moment of panic that’s compelled me to write.

I currently live with my parents on the northwest side of Indy. A couple of hours ago, I was on my way back to my parents’ house from buying a rug off of someone in Carmel. I was almost home, driving south on Ditch Road in between 96th and 91st Street, when a woman in a large SUV in the oncoming lane suddenly swerved around a pothole. I can’t tell exactly how fast she was going, but she was certainly going too fast in too big of a car to be making that sort of move. I audibly gasped as she swerved into my lane, a split second from slamming head-on into my car. She swerved back into her lane, quite literally narrowly missing my car. My gasp turned into a panic attack as the blood seemingly rushed out of my head and I could no longer see straight. Luckily I was close to home, so I pulled into my parents’ neighborhood gasping for air, tears streaming down my face. The fight or flight bodily reaction was entirely out of my control and it took me a good hour to feel like I was getting back to normal. It’s so dramatic and I’m currently rolling my eyes at myself, but my life literally flashed before my eyes, and my body reacted accordingly.

This whole thing took all of about two seconds. Knowing the pothole situation in the city, that woman should have been driving slower or maybe could have swerved the other direction instead of into oncoming traffic. And what I’m writing about here in essence is not even a problem. Nothing happened – crisis averted. But with one second’s difference, that very easily could have been a head-on collision with a couple totaled vehicles and some serious injuries at the least.

What’s it going to take for the city to take some better action about these potholes? I have no idea how all of this works. There are too many things to know about, I tell ya. If someone would like to provide me with some clarity, by all means. But honestly, whose tire needs to blow for the city to do something?

Small changes. Big difference.

I’ve dubbed 2019 to be The Year of Tessa. I’m 27, I work three different jobs, and I live with my parents (bless them). Why would this of all years be The Year of Tessa? I’ll explain.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m in a position where I’m able to make clear decisions only for myself. I’ve climbed out of the deep trenches of grief and found a new version of myself, one who follows her gut, who thinks critically, and who seeks truth. I try hard to treat myself with a level of gentleness that allows honesty, compassion, and growth. I know both what/who I want to have and what/who I want to be, and I intend to do everything in my power to get there. The Year of Tessa is the first step in that direction.

In this, I’ve started making small lifestyle changes that have made a huge difference. These are things that I should have always been doing, but better late than never, right?

  1. I journal.
    This might sound silly, especially coming from a writer, but this is not a habit I’ve always had. I’ve never been a fan of journaling. Every time I tried to pick up the habit in the past, I always felt like I was wasting my time or trying too hard. This time around, I’ve learned that the trick to journaling is to remove pressure. My journal is simply a vessel for my own growth. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it doesn’t even have to make sense. But it has to be consistent and it has to be honest.

    This daily habit is something that I now really look forward to. It’s given me a space to breathe and reflect, to get to know and befriend every part of myself. When I can see my greatest fears and insecurities written down right in front of me, I’m able to look at them objectively and develop ways to combat them, which feels nothing short of empowering.

  2. I read more books.
    This goes hand-in-hand with journaling. As far as reading goes, I bounce between books. Some people say not to do this, but I see it like this: When I’m on a long road trip, I can listen to music for a while, but at some point I grow tired of it and switch to a podcast, and vice versa.

    Reading works the same way for me. Right now I’m reading Anne of Green Gables and Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness. Soon I’ll be adding in Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward for a book club. Reading any of these for even just 20 minutes before bed or right when I wake up pries open my sleepy brain and allows me to write down some thoughts in my journal. Or like I did on the morning after Mary Oliver died, I simply write down and reflect on someone else’s words.

  3. I keep my room (mostly) clean.
    This is something I really have to work at. I’m naturally disheveled and not super bothered by mess, so letting clutter grow in my own space is easy. But something I learn time and time again is that when my external space looks organized, my internal space feels organized. That is to say, when my bed is made, my closet is organized, and there are no clothes draped over my chair or covering the floor, I feel much more calm and focused. Marie Kondo might be on to something…
  4. I unsubscribed from all clothing company email lists.
    This is an important one. This is part of the reason I’m in the credit card debt situation that I’m in now. (Well, that and plane tickets, but that’s a conversation I’m not willing to have with myself yet. It’s cool everything’s fine it’s fine.) In my efforts to be a conscious consumer, buying anything new feels wrong, especially from companies that I know use and abuse cheap labor. But like any normal person, when I read, “50% OFF STORE WIDE TODAY ONLY,” I’m overcome with a temporary desire for things that I don’t need nor do I really want. Simply removing the temptation has been hugely effective and calming.

    Fighting the lies that we need more stuff takes real mental effort some days, but I promise it’s so worth it.

  5. I established a skin care routine.
    I think this is what I’m truly proudest of. My skin has always been fine but not great, and with no longer being on the pill, my skin gets rull funky for about a week every month. Not cool. SO, here’s what I, the skincare/beauty idiot, do for my skin:

    – I wash my face every morning and evening with a basic, oil-free scrub.
    – I moisturize with a good oil-free moisturizer. I used to use whatever lotion was under my cabinet, including aloe meant for sunburns and cocoa butter meant for really dry winter skin. Ha. Using the right moisturizer is a game-changer.
    – On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights, I use the blueberry and acai facial scrub from Trader Joe’s. Just typing that out made me roll my eyes at myself, but it has actually changed my skin. The antioxidant-rich scrub has righted many of my wrongs. It’s life-giving. My skin feels softer and looks brighter. Plus, it smells like a smoothie, so fighting off the urge to eat it is a fun challenge in itself. And at five-ish dollars, it’s a cheap way to treat my skin with love.

That’s all I can think of/care to write about now. About a month into The Year of Tessa is teaching me that it really takes very little to bring myself a lot of joy. To see these things as gifts rather than chores is to open up a world of kindness and compassion for myself that I can turn around and use for others.

So if you think about it, The Year of Tessa is for everyone. You’re welcome.


Grief: Year Two

When I started reading things about grief after John died, I frequently came across the idea that the second year of grief is more difficult than the first. I scoffed every time I read that. How can the second year be harder? How can any feeling be worse than what I’m feeling right now?

Now, well into year two of this journey, I think I understand what people were talking about. In a million ways, the second year of grief is way easier than the first. The random sobbing fits are much more infrequent. The raw, open wound of loss has healed into more of a scab that splits open from time to time. My life is filled with possibility and I look to the future with hope and excitement. I feel much more like myself again, no longer floating from distraction to distraction, no longer seeking out things to momentarily make me feel human again. I feel my humanness very acutely these days. Maybe that’s what makes the second year so much harder. Year one was a year to survive. Just get through this, I told myself. Power through, go to work, put one foot in front of the other, laugh with your friends, don’t feel sorry for yourself. And I did those things. I fought my way through unimaginable pain, leaning on my friends and family along the way. I made a life-altering decision in the very early stages of grief that landed me where I am now in Costa Rica. I only felt a little sorry for myself. I thought that if I let people in on how broken I really was, I was going to be seen as weak. I wanted people to think I was strong and courageous, that I could handle anything, even the traumatic loss of who was supposed to be my life partner.

Looking back, I know that this was doing an incredible disservice to myself. Losing John was extraordinarily traumatizing, and I didn’t really let people in on that. I didn’t let myself in on that. I just wanted to survive and get on with it already. I didn’t want to be sad and I was afraid that if I admitted how truly terrible all of this was, I was going to be sad forever. Now that I see all of this extremely clearly, now that I’ve survived, I feel all of this in a new way. I realize how much I avoided during year one and how much I need to confront now that I’ve come back to earth a bit. And here I am, living the life I dreamed about living last year, and all I want to do is go home. All I want to do is finally go to therapy, to deal with this bullshit, to actually let myself feel the really deep pain in order to mend it. All I want is to be around people who really know me. Living in Costa Rica is wonderful, but sometimes I feel as though I’m living with a big secret. My emotions and thoughts confuse me and make everyday things just a little more difficult, and I don’t know how to explain that to new friends who I don’t truly know all that well. I don’t want their pity; I want understanding.

Year one of grief was both the worst and best year of my life. I made so many decisions and did so many things that I wouldn’t have if John had not died. I wound up in Costa Rica, where I met some of the best people I will ever know. But now that the realities of year two are setting in, I need to go home. I need to be with people who really know me and let myself actually feel the grief. No more powering through, no more faking it. Pretending everything is okay is far too exhausting. As my dear friend Sarah put it, you can set yourself on fire trying to keep other people warm.

Taken by Eli Stillman (www.elistillman.com)

10 Words to Know Before Arriving in Costa Rica

Original post can be found here.

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, far behind Chinese in first and barely snuffing out English in third. With so many native speakers scattered all over the globe, accents and dialects run rampant, making Spanish sometimes tricky but mostly fascinating. Each region’s dialect offers a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of its people, and Costa Rica’s is no exception.

Get to know these words and phrases to get a taste of Costa Rica before you even arrive:

1. Tico

Let’s start with the basics. A tico – or the feminine tica – is the colloquial term for a Costa Rican native. Costa Ricans themselves and foreigners alike use this term.

2. Pura vida

Literally translated to “pure life,” pura vida encompasses the relaxed and carefree Costa Rican lifestyle that so many have come to know and love. This phrase is thrown around often in everyday conversation and can be used as a greeting, response, thank you, goodbye, and more.

Though it’s used casually, there’s no doubt that Costa Ricans truly take pura vida to heart, something you’ll quickly grow accustomed to in Costa Rica.


3. Mae

Mae is the Costa Rican equivalent of “dude.” It’s heard most frequently among good friends – especially among boys and men – but can also be used when speaking to a stranger or acquaintance. Pura vida, mae.

4. Goma

Most of us are familiar with this feeling: waking up the morning after a fun night out at the bars, one too many glasses of wine, or beer at the beach all day, head pounding, mouth dry. Literally translated to “glue,” a goma is the ever-dreaded hangover that sometimes sticks around a little longer than you’d like.


5. Tuanis

Pronounced twa-nees, the origin of this word is unclear. Meaning “sweet,” “cool,” “nice,” “awesome,” or anything of the like, some say that it stems from the English phrase, “too nice.” Wherever it comes from, locals will think you’re pretty tuanis if you make this word part of your regular vocabulary.

6. Upe

This is a simple and friendly way to announce your arrival to somebody’s house. The term originates in Nicoya, Guanacaste, where people would announce themselves by saying, “Nuestra Señorita (Señora) la Virgen de Guadalupe,” meaning, “Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Eventually shortened to just upe, this is commonly used when making yourself known or checking to see if somebody’s home.

7. Gallo pinto

Say hello to your new favorite breakfast (and lunch and dinner) dish! Gallo pinto, literally translated to “spotted rooster,” is recognized as the typical breakfast in Costa Rica and most likely takes its name from the color of the rice and beans resembling that of a spotted rooster. A tasty and filling mix of rice and beans, commonly prepared with onions, peppers, garlic, and the local Lizano sauce, typically will come with two eggs made to order, tortilla, queso fresco, sour cream, fried plantains, and a steaming cup of coffee.

For around $5 a plate and a full belly for hours, you really can’t go wrong.


8. Casado

Similar to gallo pinto, casado is a traditional Costa Rican lunch or dinner dish. Translated to “marriage,” this dish is a union of rice, beans, meat or fish, and greens, and comes with a variety sides, depending on where you order it or how you decide to make it. Typical sides include fried plantains, fries, cheese, a cooked vegetable or potato medley known as picadillo, tortilla, avocado, and more. Healthy, hearty, and delicious, it’s no mystery why this is a staple in the tico diet.

9. Un rojo

Costa Rica’s local currency, the colón, is pure art, in my humble opinion. The 1000 colones bill, which is currently worth just under 2.00 USD, has on one side a portrait of Braulio Carrillo Colina, one of Costa Rica’s Heads of State in the early-to-mid 1800s. On the other side, the bill has the Guanacaste tree and a white-tailed deer, among other things. The bill is also the color red, or rojo. So, a 1000 colones bill can also be called un rojo.


10. Soda

Looking for somewhere to find a good plate of gallo pinto or casado? Look no further. Found in big cities and small villages alike, sodas are the typical family-owned restaurants that serve local, fresh, and delicious dishes at reasonable prices. Think of your favorite mom-and-pop restaurant from your town, add tico flavors, and boom, you’ve found your new favorite spot.


Going Through Changes

I’m beginning to learn a painfully obvious lesson: what has been cannot be again.

Deep, I know.

When it comes to travel and living abroad, I’ve discovered this to be even more true. When I arrived in Sámara last November for the Costa Rica TEFL month-long course, I was thrust into a group of friends that by nature was going to more or less split up at the course’s end. We all had our initial reasons for signing up for the course: some of us wanted to stay in Costa Rica to teach, some of us just wanted to get out of wherever we’d been before and didn’t know what we wanted next, and some of us had simply wanted to take a short sabbatical before returning home by Christmas. I don’t think any of us anticipated that we’d all find such good friends in one another, making the goodbyes come December surprisingly sad.

Including my time in Sámara, so far in Costa Rica I’ve lived in three houses and one apartment, with some couch and hostel surfing mixed in also. Though parting from my friends in Sámara was a major bummer, I had a lot on the horizon that kept me eager and positive. I had to find a new home and a new job; the hunt kept me active and excitable. A few of us headed north from Sámara. The few of us were glad to have each other close by as we nose dove into new cities and jobs and friend groups, but I don’t think I’m the only of us who longed for the simplicity and bliss of our time together in Sámara. But what has been cannot be again. So I applied to volunteer at Abriendo Mentes, which landed me a room in my second Costa Rica house, and then one in my third.

Moving into the third house in January, 3-bedroom Casaverde, located a stone’s throw from one of the best beaches in the province, legitimately changed my life. I was slightly nervous at the thought of living with strangers because you never know how that’ll go, but when Marcela moved in a week or so after I did and I discovered that she had learned much of her English from Friends, I knew things would be okay. And when we got to know Sigrid and Erik, who would be moving in come April, life went from good to (too) perfect.

I have never known four strangers to click in such a raw and real way as the four of us did. Even before Sigrid and Erik joined me and Marcela in Casaverde, we began our tradition of movie nights, going back and forth between our house and their’s to watch the next in whatever series we had chosen. When they moved in, we genuinely became the family that each other needed, all being so far from our own. “Bored” was not a word in that house. On the days when it was too hot to move or one of us had had a rough work day or the hangovers were too real, simply being in the living room together was our safe space. I think I’ve had some of the best, funniest conversations of my life in that living room. Not a week went by without Sigrid kicking our asses in some card game, or without a Harry PotterLord of the Rings, or Big Mouth showing. Laughter was constant. Sunset attendance was mandatory. Love and support was unwavering. Matching tattoos were unavoidable. Looking back on those months, I know for certain that they will always be some of the best of my life and that those three people will always tug on my heartstrings in a major way. Sometimes – sometimes – you just get lucky.


On a warm Sunday in May, the day before Erik and Sigrid would fly back to Sweden, we were a damn mopey bunch. I didn’t really realize this until we were sharing our last sunset beers together with other friends. One of them looked at us and said, “You guys look so sad.” That’s when I realized just how sad I was. Our perfect little family, my found paradise, was about to split up and I couldn’t stand the thought. The next morning brought many tears. After hugs goodbye on our front porch, we kind of just stood there, staring at each other for a minute, before Erik finally mustered up enough voice to say, “You guys are awesome,” and walked to the car. Marcela and I hugged Sigrid one last time and we watched the car of Swedes roll down the driveway. Erik let out his yodel just before they sped off towards the airport, leaving me and Marcela cackling through our tears.

Marcela and I lived in the house together for a few more weeks. She was looking for a new job, so I began looking for a new place to live because the thought of living in Casaverde without my happy little family depressed me. She made plans to move back to Mexico and I found a one-bedroom apartment really close to work. She moved with me for the first few days, then went on to Mexico, leaving me a note in my apartment that I still have hung up on my wall. Part of it reads:

Cosas que hacer siempre:

  • Friends
  • Helado
  • Cerveza en la playa
  • Cerveza en casa
  • Cerveza con amigos
  • Pizza
  • Buscar ladies night a mitad de semana
  • Ver más Friends
  • Llorar
  • Platicar horas y horas
  • Reir y bailar

Now in my funky apartment that has too much loud traffic in the early mornings instead of the tropical birds and monkeys of Potrero, I miss them more than ever. I also miss Eli and Kate, mis compañeros from Sámara who moved up here when I did. The former has moved back to the States and the latter to the Central Valley. I know that what has been cannot be again. Just as our good friend Charles Bradley did, I’m going through changes, and while they suck right now, I know there’s a light at the end of the transition tunnel. I’ve become friends with the new residents of Casaverde and have started hanging out with teacher friends again. I’ve had time to cook, read, and write more. But sometimes I just want to reverse time to a random Wednesday night playing card games in the living room of Casaverde, interrupted only by intermittent dancing to Avicii or Abba or Backstreet Boys, or to crack open cold ones and pass around a bottle of wine. I’m telling you, heaven really can be a place on earth.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain