By Rachel Mills

32 years living in Upper Michigan – the sum total of my life. Change called and I answered. Packed my bags and settled on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where I’ve lived for the past eight months, trading the familiar for a life of juxtapositions.

Upper Michigan is back-of-beyond-bush-country, populated with more trees and wild creatures than people. Acres of forest, swamp, and clear lake water arc across the horizon, dotted with small enclaves of humanity.

Isla is a five-mile long stretch of coral, palm and beach stretched along the coast of Cancun at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. It began as jungle, home to Mayans, then pirates, and now herds of tourists, Islenos, and hundreds of Mexicans and South Americans. Cement houses and condos form labyrinthine structures where dogs bark from rooftops, raggaetone bumps on speakers, and bright laundry flaps in a Caribbean breeze.

My white skin sets me apart – this will never truly be my home – but an expat community has opened its arms and the water’s so turquoise and buoyant, I hardly have to swim at all.

The wild Michigan place holding the memories and weight of my life, feels a bit like a well-loved jacket, a bit overgrown.

Two homes for one soul.

Days fly by like wind-driven clouds above my head.

In Michigan, days were measured by changing seasons. Slow growth of green leaves, lake water warming, berries ripening, air changing from warm to crisp. Leaves morph from verdant green to impossible oranges, yellows, and reds; then fall, skeleton branches reaching to the sky as though all that abundance had never been. The first perfect snowflakes float like a whisper, multiplying by millions. Winter days gain momentum, cold, and tedium until that first hint of warmth breathes life into the world again.

On Isla, seasons are more difficult to quantify and I look for signs, but the weather’s continuity challenges my ingrained understanding of time.

Minutes, hours, days, weeks, blur – passing like the fast-forwarded pages of a flip book without seasonal markers to delineate time passing.

I’m slowly learning to read the seasons – notice tides that monthly ebb and rise, exposing shells, sea-weed covered rocks, and coral to hot afternoon sun and silver-mooned nights.

I observe summer storms more eloquent in their ferociousness than the winter/spring rains signaling changing weather. These warm-water deluges flood cobbled streets and turn the baseball field down the block into a spontaneous lake.

Summer storms twist cloud columns in the sky – hurl lightning and thunder until the world pulses and house shakes.

My boyfriend, Ryan, says that every day I say, “Wow, look at those clouds.” Because they’re so different from the sky I’ve observed the rest of my life.

Summer storms in Michigan occasionally come with tornado warnings, but threaten only high winds and rare, crop-damaging hail.

On Isla, there’s talk of hurricane warnings, storms brewing along the African coast, vibrant radar images shimmer fluorescent cloud pattern-portents.

Here, a dark sky holds new meaning.

Without seasonal landmarks, it often feels like every time I turn around it is Friday again, and another week has flown by.

Taking on the whole island as an observation point is daunting, so for the moment, I’ve limited my focus to immediate surroundings:

I watch the guava tree outside my bedroom window first drop its leaves, then inexplicably regrow them. Soon after come tiny, lovely white blossoms that slowly turn into hard green fruits. When ripe, they’re delicious to eat. Every time I leave the driveway I grab a handful, learning to crack the skin with my teeth, and roll the round, peach-pink, flesh-covered pit around in my mouth. It tastes like a sweet tart. Eating guava while walking down the street makes me feel like a local, as I observe many Islenos enjoying the local delicacy as well.

I draw comparisons to the ripening of familiar fruits like apples, that I’ve observed for all of my 33 years. Searching out the familiar, in the foreign.

Both Michigan and Isla confound me with their extreme weather.

During a Michigan winter, the common practice is to get up, get the necessary chores done for the day, and as soon as possible, snuggle into the warmest place available because it’s too damn cold to do anything outside.

I’ve spent days of below zero weather huddled around a wood stove, waiting for the cold streak to break.

I find myself exhibiting similar behavior during really hot days on Isla – Ryan and I get up, accomplish necessary chores, and then flop inside watching a movie or reading because it’s too hot to go outside.

During an Isla summer, I find interesting juxtapositions to this winter behavior.

In Michigan, when walking into a warm house from the frigid out-of-doors, I heave a great sigh of relief as the house’s heat envelopes me. On Isla, it’s the opposite – I scurry away from the sun’s rays like I would an icy blast of cold air. It’s intensity wilts me.

When I open the door and step into the cool house, my sigh of relief comes from the embrace of chill air manufactured by air conditioner and fans.

Extreme heat, and cold – stoves and air conditioners – necessary appliances to make these disparate environments more bearable.

Sometimes, these juxtapositions make me feel unmoored – a ship without direction in uncharted waters.

Who am I here?

A question that resonates, reverberates, echoes, through my subconscious – rising and curling like waves onto beach.

I’ve spent the entirety of my life building an identity as a Michigan-woman-of-the-woods. A woman who can track animals, build gardens, forage for food, butcher a deer, cook a meal on a campfire, pee in the woods, drink from a spring, and swim in cold clear water until my lips shade purple.

What is all of that here?

If I’m being honest with myself, all those things that make up the woods-woman, didn’t make me completely satisfied, and that drove me crazy.

Even when I had everything I thought I needed to be happy, I still found myself crying tears from an unknown well while weeding the garden, walking through the woods I love so much, swimming in sacred waters.

Here is new, exciting, mesmerizing – when the shiny wears off, will I find myself in limbo again?

Is there always some part of us that pines for the place we are not?

When I’m in Michigan, my love for the place of my birth – a land verdant, familiar, and essential to me settles across my shoulders like an old coat, but I still find myself missing Isla’s easy camaraderie, sultry weather, and sensuous salty waters.

When I’m on Isla, basking in the warmth of place and a community-close-as-family, I pine for the familiar shores of Lake Superior, lonely coyote-calls, and foraging for blueberries.

Coming home to Michigan is a time warp.

Everything in its place, or nearly so, as when I left.

Fecund, fertile – woods aromas, clear water, and deep swamps carpeted in green sphagnum moss wash over me.

Birdsong and cricket concerto – the summer soundtrack of my childhood sing me to sleep once again.

I pull it over me like a tactile mosaic quilt–old, familiar, comforting.


Something in me yearns for salt breezes sighing through palm fronds and salt water drying on my freckled skin.

Perhaps a cracked heart is the expat’s curse – rooted in place, but yearning for a moon over different waters.

Rachel Mills is an English Professor, creative nonfiction writer, and cook/food writer living between Isla Mujeres, Mexico and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Rachel balances her passion for education and community with healthy doses of adventure: rock climbing, traveling, and swimming everywhere from cenotes to the lakes and rivers of upper Michigan. She received her BA, MA, and MFA from Northern Michigan University where she taught English for nine years before giving in to the siren song of Isla Mujeres and going to live, teach, and play on her beloved Caribbean island where she resides with her boyfriend, Ryan, and their pups, Bea and OG. She’s been published in The Northwestern Review, marquettemagazine.com, and writes about expat life on her website: www.jezebelstable.com. Follow her on Instagram @rachelmills906.

[Images courtesy of Rachel Mills]

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