We have no umbrellas and no plan. We watch the other tourists pouring off the cruise ships docked at port as they swarm in all directions grasping for maps, asking for directions, climbing onto bus tours and heading out for shopping excursions.
Intrigued by the sun-faded sign in the window of a Puerto Rican general store/bar that read: "Silver Key Light 89 cents," we escape from the rain and duck under the overhang. Though the claims of "iceberg cold," "smooth, refreshing" on the can were by no means true, we reminisced about the watery brews we'd fein for in college and watched some of the World Cup through the grainy window from our covered patio perch.
The rain settled into a fine mist ... one that women might pay for in a spa ... so we tossed our cans and made our way into the cobble stone streets of Old San Juan. The Spanish Colonial architecture was breathtaking. Each building has its own distinct character yet they all fit together into one seeming piece of art. Colors are bold and bright from intriguing corals and tangerine oranges to faded terra cotta and Miami blues. The lines of the storefronts and restaurants are crisp and striking against the undulating natural landscape. The streets are narrow and packed with cars. No one was moving; just sitting in traffic on one steep road after another.
A friend had told us that we could not go to San Juan without sampling a mojito so this was a must do. Wanting to pick the brains of some locals about where to go and what to do with just six hours in Old San Juan, we turned into a Reggae bar called the "Blessed Cafe." The smell of Jamaican beef patties wafted from the back of the narrow, bare bones bar. Overhead fans whirred above and a TV played a Bob Marley concert bringing the framed pictures of him that hung on nearly every wall into motion. There was only one other couple in the place so we pulled up a seat at the bar and befriended the bartender – a college student from the states there on a study abroad program that she extended ... and extended again.
We watched as she crushed the fresh mint, chopped and squeezed the lime and added sugar, a long pour of Puerto Rican rum and just a splash of seltzer to the mix. It tasted like the palpable freshness of an Irish Spring commercial. Perfection.
My legs started to go a little tingly and my face flushed happily and woozily as we paid our tab and the effects set in. It was time for exploring on a buzz. The window fronts were endless, just one after the other of cheezy souvenier shops, local artisan craft shops, art galleries, trendy and high-end clothing stores. Across from a Starbucks one shop caught my eye and I beckoned Craig in.
Everywhere I looked were words. A word lover's dream. Huge painted tiles, posters, displays of poetry. Each poem accompanied by a simple painted design. I was taken aback by all the colors and all of those letters, words, sentences. Then I narrowed in on one.
The poem was titled "Little by Little" and was illustrated with a simple rendering of a red flower:
I'm letting go. Little by little, but I am.
It sometimes hurts. I sometimes cry.
I sometimes erase it all
And sometimes I try and I can't.
But I'm letting go. I am.
That's just the way I am.
I can't help it anymore.
My mind races.
Unlike the hare
Who had patience to compete.
I'm racing to defeat myself.
It's torture in a shell
My heart has been to hell
I'm letting go.
Little by little, but I am.
I learned that now I can.
Sometimes it's good.
Sometimes it's sweet.
There are times too
That I never meet a standard,
Where questions flow unanswered
And it's okay in itself.
I'm taking down the shelf of expectations
Crowded by imitations
I learned that now I can.
I'm letting go. Little by little.
But I am.
I froze in front of it and read the words again. My eyes welled and my chest tightened. It was speaking directly to me. I could not believe how much these words were physically affecting me. It so eloquently put into words everything that I was feeling at that very moment ... that I needed to let go of my expectations and to learn that it is okay to take things step by step and that I will stumble.
"Craig, I need to have this," I called over to him from across the store. "Read this," I said, shoving a small 5" x 7" painted placard of "Little by Little" in his face.
"That's nice ... but what are you going to do with it?" he replies after absentmindedly scanning it over.
"No, you don't get it," I said. 'Men,' I thought in my head. "I need to have this to look at every day. I don't know why it's affecting me so much, but it is. Just give me the wallet."
Knowing I was serious and obviously very emotional, like the wise man he is, he handed over the dough.
I brought it up to the counter still shaky. Out jumped a teeny tiny chihuahua, trembling more than I was and I scratched behind its ears. I asked the woman at the register if she had any information about the poet. She gave me a worn copy of the poet's latest collection and told me that the place I was standing in was called The Poet's Passage – a haven and inspiration for writers with weekly open mic nights. I loved everything about it.
I placed the brown bag with my "Little by Little" poem placard and poetry book into the backpack Craig was carrying and felt so excited to post it in my office when I would start work the next week as a constant reminder that I will get to wherever I need to be.
We moseyed some more then when several blocks away I was drawn to another store. But its metal gates were pulled closed. I pointed the shop out to Craig and we crossed the street intrigued by the beautiful paintings of the buildings of San Juan hung on the walls.
"Karin, it's the poem," Craig called me over as he pointed out that in the storefront window was a huge rendition of "Little by Little."
At that moment a woman opened the door of the shop.
"You can come on in if you want ... we're just hanging out," she said to us, as if she'd known us forever. She unlocked the gate and beckoned us in.
"You were at the Poet's Passage earlier today weren't you?" she asked me.
"Uh, ya." I half-replied, taken aback by her almond skin and her fascinating Medusa-like hair. Tight, tight dreaded curls of golden blond that resembled springs you couldn't help but desire to reach out and touch. I was so confused by her comment and just took to poking around the artwork and poetry in the store as I eavesdropped on her conversation with a young man behind the counter. She talked about a recent trip she'd made to Paris to check out the poetry scene there, and she was encouraging him to continue writing. As they spoke I spotted the same poetry book that the cashier had given me and fingered through it. I then noticed the artwork on its cover – a simple pen illustration of a woman's face – tight, tight tendrils of hair tumbling over her forehead. I looked up again at the storeowner and it all came together.
I elbowed and whispered this to Craig who nodded to me to go up to her. I stood quietly until she finished her conversation with her young apprentice and said:
"You're the poet aren't you? I just have to tell you how much your poem 'Little by Little' affected me." I proceeded to tell her how it brought me to tears.
To my surprise, after a humble acceptance of my compliments, she replied with:
"I wanted to meet you. I saw you in the Poet's Passage from afar and you had such an amazing energy about you. But by the time I could get away, you were gone. I was so excited to see you here. This is the store that I run with my husband." She is also the mastermind behind the Poet's Passage.
This woman, whom I was so inspired by, had been wanting to meet me. It was one of those moments that takes your breath away. Her name is Lady Lee Andrews, a dedicated poet and lover of words. Her husband is a French painter and together they create fantastic artworks in an amazing space. She runs two stores in San Juan and we happened to stumble into them both. As much as we asked about her, she was just as interested in both me and Craig and in our story.
I poured out to her what I had just gone through and how I was trying to now wrap my brain around the fact that I was on the other side but that the healing would not be immediate and how perfectly she illustrated how we all create these unrealistic expectations for ourselves and need to accept things as they come. That we need to slow our minds down and accept that some questions will never be answered.
When I asked her about the inspiration behind the poem I fully expected to hear it was about getting over a break-up, a lost love. What she told me made the moment even that much more surreal.
When she was painting the large-scale version we saw in the storefront (turns out it is the original), she was recovering from her own cancer scare. Misdiagnosed, she was told that she was going to have to lose her leg in order to save her life. Saved by one doctor who was in tune enough to know that no, it was not cancer, but a treatable infection, she was at once shocked and relieved having already prepared herself for battle, psyched herself up to fight and come to terms with what she needed to do. This poem was about being able to let all that go.
We shared more conversation about writing and the connections that it can make and marveled at ours. She opened up her city to us, drawing out a map of the walk that we should take to soak in the sunset and sample the best Puerto Rican food where the locals eat when they don't feel like cooking. She gave me a fresh signed copy of her book, "Naturally" and I gave her my blog address.
I've noticed Puerto Rico pop up on my site map and I've noticed myself reading the lines of "Little by Little" off my fridge where it now lives every day. Maybe I'm not back in my office on the mend, but I will still get to my place of peace. I'm still racing to defeat myself ... torture in a shell.