Rebecca Chamaa

I am a simple woman. Most mornings, I get up, make coffee, write my blog, make a spinach, banana, yogurt and berry smoothie, take my medication, and then check in with all my social media accounts. My husband says I am easy to please. Some mornings he gets the coffee ready before I wake up, and I feel as if I have been given a birthday present. There is joy in my heart about routine, and all the little things.

I have paranoid schizophrenia and I know how bad a day can be. I can be overcome by social anxiety, or anxiety in general, or I can have paranoid thoughts that leave me fearful. On the worst days of my life I have been psychotic, a condition of the mind I wish no one had to experience.

Most of my adult life I have lived in a bubble along with my husband. We have protected and kept our life very private, even from close friends, in order to avoid judgment, ridicule, jokes, and special treatment.

When I say special treatment, I mean people behaving toward us in certain ways not based on our personalities, accomplishments, or behavior, but on assumptions surrounding my diagnosis. Recently, we decided to pop that bubble in a very big and public way.

My husband and I both posted an article on Facebook that was written by a mentor of mine about my courage. The courage she was referring to was my honesty in my writing groups about an illness I have battled since my 20s, the illness of schizophrenia. My writing groups were the only place where everyone was aware of my diagnosis. I simply couldn’t write poetry and memoir without revealing details of my mental illness, because much of my writing has to do with situations around having and struggling with schizophrenia.

Before my husband and I went public with the secret we had kept for over 17 years, we had many discussions about how people might react and how we’d respond. We had some near sleepless nights. We were very anxious because we felt our whole world was about to change.

We have received e-mails, calls, texts, Facebook messages, and letters in the mail. Most people have been very supportive, at least on the surface. I say that not to diminish their support, but to be honest. There is so much misinformation about schizophrenia (like that it’s multiple personality disorder, or that people with schizophrenia wear tinfoil hats, or do other bizarre things) that people respond from ignorance rather than understanding.

It is true that you can see some people with schizophrenia living on the street talking to voices only they can hear. It is also true that some people with schizophrenia are being treated in jails instead of hospitals. But these scenarios simply point to a system that is broken and not to everyone who has schizophrenia. The people I know with schizophrenia are trying to live as normally as possible while struggling with a brain disease.

Unfortunately, mental illness is more common than most people know or admit. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) reports that one in four Americans will develop a mental illness in their lifetime. Those numbers definitely suggest that everyone reading this knows at least one person (probably more) who has battled with, or is currently battling with, a mental illness.

We have come a long way in accepting depression. And because of some very high profile people, we have come a long way in accepting bipolar disorder, but we have not moved forward much in regards to the stigma surrounding schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is still wildly misunderstood, and the people who suffer from it (openly) are often left out, or pushed out, of normal social situations.

On a daily basis I am subjected to people making jokes about hearing voices, people making jokes about paranoid delusions that people with a mental illness might actually experience. Of course the words psycho, nuts, crazy, schizo, wacked, mental, loony, etc. are all part of our common vocabulary.

I stayed in that bubble for almost 20 years because I was afraid that the world would judge me. I was afraid that everything I said and did would be considered a symptom of my illness rather than part of my personality or part of my character. And to be honest, in the case of many people, some of my worst fears have come true.

But even with that, I’m not sorry that we popped the bubble. I am now free to be me, both in public and in private, and I have the chance to use my life and my experience to help fight the stigma that left me in hiding all those years.

Maybe my honesty will make it easier for the next person to share. Hopefully, I can and will be a voice that helps pave a new path for those who want to live out in the open.

Zoo_booth3I don’t wish for a bigger house, a fancier car, designer clothes, or the latest in plastic surgery. I am happy with what I have. I am thankful for a day without voices keeping me from communicating with my husband, or friends. I am thankful for a day without the terror that I have died and gone to hell and there is no way out. I am thankful for a day that I don’t believe I am being poisoned or tape recorded or followed. I am thankful for a day I don’t believe God is directing my every move.

The medication I take is good at keeping me from experiencing psychosis, but there are still symptoms of my illness every day. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I have a great deal of paranoia around issues of food and eating. I spend ninety percent of my time alone, because I become easily overwhelmed in social settings. I have a group of really good friends, and I love spending time with them, but I lack social motivation. In fact, all kinds of motivation are a struggle.

It’s okay though. I have a good life. I have a roof over my head, running water, a comfortable bed, access to laundry facilities, transportation and good medical care. I am never really hungry or thirsty. I have someone who loves and cares about me. I am not living among a war or famine. The condition of my life is so much better than billions of people on the planet. I won’t complain.

Sure, living with paranoid schizophrenia is difficult, but so are millions of other things. Cancer is difficult. Diabetes is difficult. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are difficult. Who is to say which challenge is harder? Who is to say who has the more difficult path to walk? We walk the path we are given, and in my case, I look for the good along the way.

There is so much good, like a pink sunset, the laughter of a child, an unexpected call from a friend, French fries with lemon juice and feta cheese.

Mine is a beautiful life, even if some people wouldn’t agree. Too much negativity is a disability too, but it is not one I suffer from.

Rebecca ChamaaRebecca Chamaa’s poetry and essays have been published on Yahoo Health, The Mighty, Role Reboot, Serving House Journal, Structo, City Works, Voicewalks, San Diego Reader, and others. Her book, Pills, Poetry & Prose: Life with Schizophrenia is available online and she blogs at A Journey with You


Alcoholic Anonymous

I got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1997, following a 20-year drinking run that began with fun, games, ease, debauchery and adventure . . . and ended up with me as a 33-year-old housewife with a quart-a-day vodka habit.

I was bankrupt in soul, damaged of liver, sluggish, guilty, lying and dodging. A mom to a darling toddler and wife to a kind, wry, hard-working man. I had become a bit of a shut-in, drinking while my son napped, watched cartoons and played (often, to my horror, with my ever-present bottles, like sinister toys). I was in the privileged, fortunate position of being able to quit my job in publishing and become a full-time mom while my husband worked long hours as a computer expert at a bank yet still came home to be a fine, attentive, loving dad. But I took this great opportunity and brought it to the precipice of ruin. I was at a desperate impasse and had the fleeting notion that it would take an act outside my own stubborn self to get me the help I needed.

It was the kid who ratted me out, blew my cover and saved my life. My bottles (quarts of Smirnoff 100-proof) were always in my purse, and they went everywhere with me. (I called it my portable bar, a sad “joke” known only to me.) One day, I got careless with the placement of my bag and – unbeknownst to me – my son dragged my husband over to my bottle-laden bag. This happened a second time and a third. Then, my intuitive baby led my husband to a vodka-soaked shirt I had hastily tossed into the hamper. After that, my husband (quick study that he was) checked quietly for the evidence on his own . . . always, but always, finding it.

He was baffled and horrified by the amount of alcohol I was consuming, but he was devastated by my lying about it. It all came to a heartbreaking showdown that got me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1997, where I gratefully remain to this day. It saved my life, restored my sanity, slowly rebuilt trust in what today is a happy marriage to the same man, and allowed me to be a gleeful, quirky, loving, responsible mom to my kid, who is now thriving on his own blazing path as a college sophomore.

But it was a broken, contrite, slightly jaundiced, wounded broad who walked into her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was in a location known to me; a nearby storefront that was always the site of a cluster of people laughing, chatting and congregating. I had long figured it to be a 12-Step group of some sort and often thought, “I’ll probably have to be there one day, but they haven’t gotten me yet!” I called AA for a local meeting place and a sweet, woolly-voiced gentleman provided me with that precise address.

It got me.

It’s a tiny room, a cold-water flat that was once a milliner’s shop in the 1950s, an authentic Greenwich Village structure if ever there was one. The people inside are like me – struggling with a disease that we cannot combat alone. This particular group is loose, whacky, supportive, profound, silly and life-saving. I attend many meetings all over Manhattan, but this one locale has become my spiritual home, my support group, my place to give back and my connection to the outside world. It has also returned me to my family, in better condition than before. And it has allowed me to take my own experience to help others and ensure my ongoing redemption.

My life is, in short, beyond my wildest dreams.

Having shared all that, it’s my profound, bemused pleasure to report that a life beyond my wildest dreams turns out to be a mellow, scandal-free, uninteresting-on-the-page existence. It’s a safe bet that no one would want to read my sober autobiography. When people share their problems, heartbreaks and concerns with me and then ask me how I am, I often don’t have a whole lot to report.

A true career never materialized. I do some volunteer work, lots of service within the 12-step rooms, design jewelry on the whim and take the occasional clerical or freelance job. My husband is a fairly young retiree, very immersed in the community, and we’re gratifyingly comfortable in the pricey city of my dreams.

My life is filled with small joys, each set off with the daily (perhaps not hourly, but still!) conscious awareness that I am upright, healthy, sane and happy…entirely as a result of my day-at-a-time sobriety.

I have reams of books, love crime TV and old movies, live in Greenwich Village (not the Bohemian Nirvana I fell in love with, alas, but a trove of delights nonetheless) in a pretty tight 10-block radius for the most part. I’m endlessly immersed in music. I hoof it everywhere, greet my doormen (and the next building’s doormen) like the old friends they are, love the deli guys, shoot the breeze with familiar faces on the street, hide out when I see fit. I have a bunch of go-to tea stores, hippie shops, diners and pizzerias that become homes away from home.

When I was younger, I’m sure I expected a little more glitz, bang for my buck, funky talking points in my existence, but that’s not quite what happened. I don’t come with a series of exciting anecdotes, but I’m treated with kindness and respect, looked to for advice and comfort. Astoundingly, I connect with people in ways I would have found impossible when I was busily hiding out in the bottle.

Life’s not perfect, nor need it be. I’ve had my share of disappointments, losses of loved ones, broken bones, health scares, friendship weirdness and agita in the past 17 years, make no mistake. It’s just life, on life’s terms. But the endless upside is that I am present and accountable to all of it, get to amend the wrongs, make fewer of them, not destroy myself on a daily basis an even give back to my world a little bit.

It’s a modest, delicious, fulfilling existence. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I work hard to maintain it, but the benefits are peace, ease, a certain comfort in my skin, and bursts of quiet, profound gratitude. I’m not only aboveground, I’m (metaphorically, mind you) dancing in the aisles.

Alcoholic Anonymous

“Alcoholic Anonymous” is a wife, mom, citizen, happy left-wing broad, voracious reader, lover of all things vintage & long-time resident of Greenwich Village.



Moist, a journey out of chapstick addiction

Earlier this month I gave birth to a daughter. My first. She was born with midwives but had to go to St. Luke’s for an infection. She had an IV in her hand, and when it wore out after a day, they put it in her other hand. Then her foot. Then her other foot. I watched each part of her 7lb-10-oz body turn scaly as it got wrapped with IV tape and parched by the dry air of the NICU.

I wanted to rub oil onto her extremities. I wanted to touch each dry part and make it moist, but she was connected to wires and away from home, not ready for me yet. Every part of her dried out that first week of her life, her eyes, her small inverted nipples, her fingers. Everything but her lips. Her lips stayed perfect — soft and moist.

I talked to her even when I couldn’t hold her. I told her about myself, about some things I had learned. I told her, one evening, about need. About how important it is to need people, not things. How not needing too many things makes a person portable, able to travel light. I told her things I learned almost a decade ago, from being addicted to chapstick.

Since discovering lip balm at age ten, I put it on my lips between 50 and 100 times a day. These are real numbers, by the way, not fuzzy math. I had to keep it with me at all times: I had vanilla lip balm in my glove compartment; Nivea rose in the pocket of whichever boyfriend I was dating; standard cherry chapstick in my backpack; Body Shop strawberry next to my bed; Rachel Perry banana-coconut in the kitchen; and my favorite of all, Montana huckleberry in my purse – that one I always ordered in bulk in case I ran out.

Jump forward eleven years – I had just graduated from college, and I used the first paycheck of my first writing job to book a trip to NY. I packed clothes for a week, my notebook, toothbrush, and half a dozen tubes of lip balm: plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry.

I stayed with my friend Yo-El who was a first year medical student, and spent my first day exploring. When Yo-El finished class, I met her for oysters at a little restaurant near Battery Park. I was telling her about my day when she interrupted me and said: “Hey, Liz, when’s the last time you looked in the mirror?”

“What?” I asked. “I don’t know. This morning, probably. Why?

“Well,” she said, “I was just wondering what’s wrong with your lips.”

She ushered me off to the bathroom to have a look.

Both my top and bottom lip looked as if they had been burned. They had this awful blistery flakiness, and had turned a bright lipstick burgundy. The corners of my mouth had cracked into sore-looking circles, sort of like the red dots on clown-cheeks.

Perhaps, I thought, I needed better lip balm. I dragged Yo-El out of the oyster bar and to a Walgreen’s a few doors down. I bought a new tube of Vaseline lip therapy and thought that by the end of the night, the problem would be solved.

But the next morning, my lips had gotten worse. When I got up for breakfast, Yo-El was sitting at her kitchen table, practicing her sutures on a piece of raw chicken, and still she looked at my mouth and said, “Gross.”

In addition, she began trying to diagnose me, telling me all of the things it “might” be – such as oral cancer. “That’s what it looks like,” she said apologetically. “Oh, I hope it’s not squamous cell carcinoma! Or worse …  what if it’s syphilis? If it is syphilis you’d better treat it – untreated syphilis can lead to blindness. Or you might have Steven-Johnson Syndrome. That wouldn’t be too bad – except that it’s untreatable.”

I still thought the problem was as simple as my needing more lip balm, so I went out and bought something stronger, with soothing herbs and lavender.

But this new lip balm didn’t work, either, and my face was getting worse; the cakey redness was spreading down toward my chin and up toward my nose. So I cut my trip short and went home that day. As I took the subway back to my apartment, I noticed tactless people – mostly children and very old people – staring at me. It was disconcerting.

That evening, I had had enough. I had two more weeks before my college health insurance ran out, so I gathered every lip balm I owned and frog-marched myself to University Health Services. I wasn’t sure which floor to go to – was this an Ear, Nose, and Throat Problem, or simply Dermatology? Should I go to Sexual Health, or the Cancer Center? It turned out that all of the different wings closed at 5pm, so any problems afterward were considered Emergency.

So I waited in the Emergency Room, sitting among people with broken arms and legs. And finally I got called back. The doctor looked exhausted, like those interns you see in movies who haven’t slept for 3 days. “Well?” he said. “What is the problem?”

I explained about my mouth.

“Did you try lip balm?” He asked.

“Yes!” I said. “About twenty different kinds!” And I opened my purse, and out spilled plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry, and dozens of other kinds that I had tried and that had failed me.

The doctor wanted to know how long I had been using lip balm. I told him eleven years.

Then he asked: “How many times a day would you say you use it?”

I decided to give a conservative answer. “About thirty,” I said, casually. “Give or take.”

“Thirty!” He said. “Jesus.” It dawned on me then that this had to be serious, as the doctor probably wasn’t supposed to say “Jesus” in front of patients.

He put on gloves and examined my mouth. He took a culture. He left the room and returned a few minutes later, and said:

“The problem is that you are addicted to lip balm.”

He went on to say that my lips had stopped producing moisture, and that the only way to fix this was for me to go cold turkey.

I told him that that wasn’t an option. I asked, “Can’t you send me home with, like, a prescription or something? What is normally done in these cases?”

He gave me a scornful look. “We don’t see a lot of lip balm addicts in the emergency room.”

But he disappeared again and returned with a sample tube of steroid cream, the kind you use for athlete’s foot. “You may put the cream on your lips twice a day. No more. If you come back here in a week addicted to this cream, I will refuse to see you.” Then he left the room for good, leaving me in it, surrounded with colored lip balm tubes poking in all different directions.

It was a sad walk home that Saturday night, but I courageously stopped at a trash can in Harvard Square, surrounded by punk teenagers and homeless people, and I began to empty my purse. Down went plain mint, gooey grape in a tub; down went Dr. Pepper flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime. Down went all tubes, including Montana huckleberry.

There is an invisible line dividing before and after in most addictions, and even in such a ridiculous one, the line existed.

The things I couldn’t do until my lips healed included kissing (when I tried to kiss my boyfriend, he refused because he said I was “scaly”); eating spicy food; taking big bites of any food; and using lipstick. I learned this last rule a month after the initial flare-up, when I tried to test the doctor’s orders by using moisturizing lipstick – and I ended up, once again, with starchy clown-lips that took another month to heal.

But soon I learned that there were also things I could now do: for example, swimming. I used to have to stick near the sides of the pool or the lake, because even in the water I needed to have fast access to lip balm. But now when I went swimming with friends, I could swim out further. I could also travel more lightly, since I no longer needed to carry a purse to tote around all my lip balms. I could just stick money and keys in my pocket and go.

And it made me wonder: what other things did I think I needed that I could give up?

First on that list was the boyfriend. He was a place-holder, you know the kind of person you date while waiting for someone better to come along, and also I could not get him to stop using the word, “irregardless,” which is not actually a word.

I thought: I don’t need him.

Then I realized how many belongings I had that I didn’t need. That year after college, I started giving them away. It was sort of the beginning of my life as a generous person. If I wasn’t using something well, I felt that the thing should go to somebody who would love it.

I moved into a smaller apartment. I looked at my life and all its commitments – did I truly need to be a member of this club? Was that friend actually a good friend? Did I need this job, or was I just wasting my time and keeping it to feel safe? I reexamined every thing, every person, and every commitment that I had. And I consciously chose to either keep them or let them go. I began traveling lightly in a whole new way, choosing to focus my time and energy only on the things that mattered to me. And it was all because of lip balm.

And  that’s how lip balm became a divider between my teens and my twenties, an  addiction that I left behind in one decade to move, unaddicted, into the next.

Elisabeth Sharp McKettaElisabeth Sharp McKetta is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkey Puzzle, Anderbo, Luna Station Quarterly, and Talking River; her play “Zelda Speaks of Swans” was performed in two long-standing new works festivals, and she has been the featured storyteller at several events, including Story Story Night, where she first ’fessed up publicly to her chapstick addiction.


Simon Chaitowitz

Some clouds have some surprisingly useful silver linings. Cancer, for example.

No, I’m not one of those cheery and “oh so brave” sick people who thinks that cancer made me a better person or helped me find my true self. I hate cancer. I’m pissed I got it the first time and even more mad I got it a second time (an unfortunate little side effect of treatment from the first one).

So no, I’m not into pretending that cancer isn’t horrible. But the Big C does have one little perk that doesn’t get publicized much. And I’d like to make sure that no cancer “survivors” guilt-trip themselves out of using it. (Like yours truly, until recently.)

What I’m talking about is taking advantage of any possible opportunity you have to do what you want and not do what you don’t want. For example, if you’re immune suppressed, the doctors tell you to quit cleaning litter boxes, changing diapers, taking out the garbage, or weeding gardens (yes, yes, yes, and yes!) but there are tons more Get Out of Jail Free Cards just waiting to be picked up.

In other words, don’t feel shy about using cancer to your own ends — whether that’s making your life better, furthering your cause, or just helping yourself get through the day. I call it Playing the Cancer Card. Kristin Boles, a cancer listserv mate, says she and herhusband call it the Fringe Benefits of Cancer.

Here are just a few examples. All are either based on my experiences or those of other cancer survivors:

* Get out of a parking ticket. Write a nice letter to the city explaining how you were rushing to your CANCER appointment when you noticed the meter you chose wasn’t working. Voila! Fee waived.

* Talk your way into meetings with secretaries of state and the prime minister. Adrian Sudbury, an advocate for bone marrow donation inEngland, says his disease regularly opens doors for him. Brilliant.

* Skip long, boring events. No need to feel obligated to attend that dreaded yearly family reunion if you don’t enjoy it. You need your rest, after all. But if you find yourself at the event, and just can’t take it anymore, no worries. No one will take your departure personally.

* Get discounts at nice hotels. No kidding. The last time I went out of town for a check-up, I found out that one of my favorite hotels offered a 20 percent discount to guests visiting the nearby clinics. Easier to justify luxury with that kind of savings.

* See your words in print. If there’s one phrase that virtually guarantees you’ll make it onto the Letters to the Editor page, it’s “As a cancer survivor, I feel … .” Nearly every letter I’ve started like that has been published. The Letters page is a great place to share your ideas about doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, or anything else related to cancer.  (Of course, if you’re already famous, you can probably use cancer to get yourself on Larry King.)

Those of us who are immune-suppressed have even more built-in excuses. One woman just told me she talked her way into the use of an indoor bathroom at a summer festival where everyone else had to use the portable toilets. Two points for creativity and boldness! (Disclosure: I’m still sometimes too chicken to ask to be the first on the buffet line.)

Those of us who are genetically disposed to guilt complexes may have an extra hard time following this advice. But trust me.

When life hands you cancer, this is your chance to eat dessert first, stop shaving your legs, switch to part-time work, or get out of jury duty. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Go for it.

Simon ChaitowitzSimon Chaitowitz was a writer and two-time cancer survivor living and working in Washington, D.C. As much as she disliked the word “survivor,” she admitted it could be useful.  Simon passed away in 2009, less than one year after contributing this story to Dare to be Fabulous. She died from a blood disorder caused by the treatment she underwent for breast cancer.



I feel like lately I have read quite a few accounts of agoraphobic middle-aged women. They don’t like to grocery shop or go to work or otherwise leave the house. I think, “of course you are agoraphobic.” I think, “agoraphobia is an irrational fear of the outside world. What is irrational about fearing the outside world?” I became a gardener in my late thirties after years of doing nothing of the kind: before I cycled and ran and spent hours at the gym. The garden is an extension of the house, surrounded by fence and foliage; it is an outdoor room enclosed from the city streets.

I always thought it was kind of cruel to keep cats indoors. They should be allowed to roam as is their wont. Why should cats be restricted for their own good, like so many Victorian wives? Yet lately I have become an indoor kind of cat. I cannot precisely place the transformation. I feel however that I have less and less interest in what goes on outside of my house. I have no interest in meeting new people. I don’t like to try new restaurants. I don’t know what this is exactly. A creeping fear or shyness, sensory saturation, diminishing returns? My husband, who is perpetually writing four novels at once, feels we are mirror opposites. His surfeit of interests makes it difficult for him to finish anything and so he feels like he accomplishes nothing. In contrast, he thinks I have become overly specialized. I have narrowed down my interests so much that I am in constant danger of attempting nothing. And yet I must do something. I am a relatively successful anthropologist. But the struggle is there.

Where does the struggle come from? As I age, I do find it less satisfying to live an outside kind of life. The ambient vibes, positive and sexual, don’t bounce from the pavement anymore. In fact, there is a negative or absent quality to my public face. Being in public I am no longer affirmed, and sometimes I am effaced. Recently, I was in a café awaiting someone I was to interview. We had not met, but we had exchanged descriptions: he, grey-haired, medium height, thin build; me “big” curly dark hair, on the short side. I saw him arrive, order his coffee. This was obviously my informant—he was the only grown-up in a small sea of Midwestern college students. I waited for him to approach my table. I watched as his eyes scanned the crowd and scanned it again. I watched him turn back to the coffee counter to see if I was there. I watched him turn to scan the crowd in my direction another time, his eyes never touching my face, as though they had an internal editor. At that point I hailed him enthusiastically, with a smile, and we proceeded with the interview.

My experience as a college professor has been disillusioning. Even in the enlightened university hamlet women ought to “be nice.” If your colleagues find you pushy, aggressive, or bossy (a former boss’s preferred adjective to describe me) within the department you might not get tenure. If you are not assertive, confident, and self-assured outside of the department you will never get past the negative reviews of your colleagues, essential if you want to publish and not perish.

And I am also more fearful. Out at a salsa club in Mexico a few days ago, I told some friends that I had once ridden my bicycle through Mexico. “And yet now I am terrified I will be hit by a car as I walk along on the sidewalk.” It is just mortality, said my friend. You are becoming aware of your mortality.

Mortality, sexism, diminishing returns. These are all persistent themes in our lives, and yet we live them still. I notice the themes in Chiapas, Mexico, where I study coffee farmers. To get to the coffee communities, I take a collective taxi on a daily death-defying journey over curving mountain roads that the taxi drivers handle quite deftly. As they narrowly avoid the oncoming traffic, they tell me stories of migration. Pasqual tells me he was a gardener, a carpenter, and a handyman in Washington. I ask which Washington? He says the one that is the home of George Bush. We laugh. To arrive in Washington, D.C., he had crossed the Sonora Desert in Arizona. It took four nights of walking, with some hours of rest during the day. The polleros (this literally means someone who raises chickens) charged $2,500 and took him in a truck to Virginia. Life was very sad, he said, during that year, because he missed his family. But he said life in Tenejapa is also very sad because you can’t earn enough money and that makes everything hard. You make maybe 80 pesos a day ($7.50) and you have to buy food out of that and everything else. (Groceries are running me about $10 a day). I have heard dozens of variations on this story. Some taxi drivers allude to the deaths of compatriots. Increasing border security has led migrants to across ever more dangerous desert routes.

Dangerous crossings are not new. Before roads and buses made it possible for rural people from the far south to migrate to the border, they made long journeys to the coffee plantations on the coast. What is now a bus journey of a few hours from mountains to seaside was once also a four-day walk. A snapshot. Alonso, Ana, and their son Umberto are together a nice family. They fill in each other’s stories and listen to one another with interest and compassion. The couple is in their late sixties. Their unmarried son is in his thirties and their only helper. Umberto tells me they have had a particularly hard time in the last few years because they are Zapatistas and therefore have lost access to the few government programs that exist. They grow organic coffee for the fair trade market and organic honey. Alonso and Umberto dress me in a beekeeper’s outfit to take me on a tour of their hives.

Alonso, the father, was an orphan. His dad died when he was ten of drink and his mother when he was 12 of fever. So he had to go work on a coffee plantation when he was ten, at first working in the kitchen because he was too young to work in the fields. When he was 12, he began agricultural work on the plantation under the care of a man from his own community. The man felt sorry for him and was kind, making sure that Alonso got to pick the most loaded trees so he could fill his bags quickly and earn well. Alonso worked seasonally for 12 years on this plantation. As an adult the work was much harder. He had to get up at two or three in the morning and work until five in the evening. He worked from about 1950 until about 1975 on the plantation where he often “felt lonely in his heart.”

Eventually he inherited six hectares from his father’s estate and married Ana. At first they grew peanuts for the world market and corn and beans to eat. Alonso continued to work seasonally on the coffee plantation. About thirty years ago he started growing coffee, which was promoted through a government agency called INMECAFE. At that time, the government had a lot of progressive programs aimed at raising the economic position of rural people. Growing coffee at home meant that Alonso no longer had to make the seasonal journey to the coastal coffee plantations. Coffee cultivation has brought some improvement for Alonso.

In the old days, Ana had to bring all of their water for drinking, bathing, and cooking from the well that was one and a half kilometers away. There is now tubed water, but even with this improvement, life is still very hard. Ana is too weak to grind the corn for tortillas, even though it needs to be done, and making tortillas is painful because she has terrible rheumatism. Ana says: I want to die already. I am ready to die. I am discouraged with this coffee. There is still no result. Look at my kitchen. It is falling apart. It is like the house of the black wasp [a mud house]. All of our work and I live in a house like this. I would just as soon abandon the coffee and go live in a cave! Ana starts to cry.

I know how she feels. I want to abandon it all and go live in a cave! Of course, unlike Ana, I get to escape the grind. I often retreat to my garden, my cave. It keeps me satisfied and sane. But when am I happiest? When hurtling irrevocably toward an oncoming semi, ranchero music blaring in my ears, the taxi driver busily looking for a new CD he would like to play. Or stuffed into a beekeepers suit, stiff as an astronaut, deafened by the whine of worried bees and blinded by smoke.

Molly DoaneMolly Doane is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studies the producers of fair trade coffee in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as the roasters and consumers who purchase it in the Midwest.