The Silver Lining of Being S.A.D. in the South of Chile

A couple of days after the massive volcanic eruption I peeked out of the cabin window. I looked towards the lake and couldn’t see, well—the lake. Ash clouds had devoured the landscape like a dog on a juicy bone. Hunkered down, it chewed up all remaining airspace in its gritty, yellow fog. As strange as it was, the weather report said “sunny.” That week I took to wearing my hair in a man-bun. My cosmic, buddha topknot to funnel the heat, the steam, the fallout.

The dream was of a solar-powered cabin.  An organic modern with fluffy Patagonian alpaca rugs, hot pink and school-bus yellow throws.  We would build our own greenhouse complete with water collection. There showcasing a variety of lettuces, herbs, heirloom tomatoes and a spectrum of veggies. Learning the forest, I would become a mushroom connoisseur.  Make art. Write songs. We would connect to my husband’s Chilean heritage. We would make cutting edge ecocentric friends and discuss the latest in off-grid living.  And together map out a sustainable future for all the planet. 

    Ya know, we would be happy.  But as with every dream… at some point you must wake up.  

            There is a saying in Chile that more of less translates: 

            “If you have a good day in the South, enjoy it. If it’s raining in the South, it’s the South.”

Don’t get me wrong. Living in the South of Chile was a rich and unforgettable experience. Lush landscapes replete with black and white bovines, dazzle. Snow-capped mountains akin to the Alps in the Sound of Music, hypnotize And turbulent turquoise-blue rivers bring adventure seekers in droves in the summer months.  Pragmatic the Chileans are, but I had only visited and never lived in such a fertile climate.  And with volcanic activity not seen in some 50 years, I felt more like I was living in an alternate universe. The southern hemisphere was a parallel world. A place where Dan Aykroyd might be more comic genius than Bill Murray. And a headless/fretless bass might be cooler than a Fender. 

On our last visit three months before our official arrival to the South we found the house we would rent.  Outside of charming, eco-touristic Pucón, the house seemed a perfect fit.  It had a large yard for the dogs and a view of the smoldering Villarrica volcano.  And it was the perfect proximity between our land and civilization.  We would rent for six months while we built our cabin overlooking Calafquén lake. There we would make our own version of Thoreau’s Walden.  

I wore a fleece cap to bed for the first month until my husband convinced me to move to the upstairs room.  The fireplace downstairs was our main source of heat (besides our Chihuahua that burrowed under the covers).  A wide black iron pipe rose up through the floor boards to heat the second level which was always warmest. Keeping the uninsulated house livable was a constant battle with the gripping cold draft. Many locals burn less expensive, green wood despite its toxicity.  Views down the quaint streets of Pucón and Villarrica became obstructed by the smoke. Many residents were forced to wear masks to protect their lungs. Unlike other cold climates, no snow came to break up the monotony. The sky threatened with out mercy to drop its gray slate mass on our heads. 

On previous visits to the South, light rains came and went between epic rainbow skies. Luminescent leaves sparkled. This was the Chile that would heal any heart, any aches. I had had an out-of-control series of losses the previous year.  I had lost my own father to suicide. But I felt a sense of inseparability from the natural world.  I believed the glorious nature of the South could help heal my heart and reconnect all the broken parts. Douglas Tompkins once said, “There is still a need inside of us to see not every square meter of earth has been humanized.” That was always true for me, and Chile offered that promise. I got the feeling that I was in on a secret world. There you were able to glimpse a fleeting moment in time. There you would find a trail between trees on which perhaps no human had ever walked before.  That would be the key to my reconnection.  

We agreed to send our daughter to the English-Spanish school. Though we liked the German-Spanish school a lot. We believed it would be better not to overwhelm her with too much change at once. The South is nothing like the temperate desert of colorful Mexico we call home. The influence of Germany is everywhere. It is a picturesque scene with red and white polka-dotted mushrooms.  The South is a place where a little fairy or wood nymph might spring forth from any given gnarl in a tree. Chileans eat kuchen (the German word for cake). They drink German beer and build pitched roofs a la German chalets. I am a native Texan. I know about over-heated skin, all-day-moist with millions of beads of sweat.  I know to keep my fine hair pulled back for seven months of the year, even when the morning is cool.  By noon it will be a wet mop stuck to my melting forehead. The South is no such land. Around the third day when we picked our daughter up from school, our good judgment came into question.  Though her attitude was cheery and bright, her lips were a deep, blue-crab blue. Not blue from some paleta (lollipop) a nice student had shared to make her feel welcome, but because there was no heating in her school. New unacclimatized students wore their coats at recess, in the classroom—all day. They were little bundles not to unwrap until bath time. To my amazement, our daughter acclimated with great speed. So, we were not forced to remove her for fear of hypothermia.  

My own acclimation proved to be a far less graceful.

This place, wet with winter, penetrates my bones. I ache, crack, time speeds up. I remind myself, “You wanted this.” We barrel down the highway.  Green forests, quaint farms, and the promise of a brighter future blend into a dull gray smudge. Winter hardships prove a rite of passage to the deeper fruits of spring’s wonders. The bud is the womb of the bloom, but before the bud, a hard, nubby branch must fist its way through. I am at nature’s mercy, how she sees fit.  If this is the path to deeper knowing, then so be it, come what may. I regain my balance despite tainted DNAa premature call to the other side.

Other families we met seemed to embrace the cold and rain. Our ecocentric friends (some dreams do come true) were also a bi-cultural family. But they were the reverse of us—the dad an American and the mom a Chilean. They made regular trips with their kids to hot springs when the weather became too intense. They spoke of afternoons on their land, taking in the glorious Volcano Villarrica views. (Villarrica was part of the chain of volcanos in the famous Pacific Ring of Fire). They were living the dream with a gorgeous organic greenhouse and little fish ponds. They lived in tune with the river’s flow and mountain’s snow.

Mentally, I was just as enchanted and transfixed with the beauty around me. Yet, on an emotional level there evolved an unknown darkness. What was the trigger to this increasing feeling of loneliness and impending doom? Was nature the cure—or maybe the cause? I  self-medicated with plenty of cheap and delicious Chilean wine. But, I committed to take real healing into my own hands. My husband seemed content with just, the wine. “How can you drink so much?” I would prod.  “Don’t you feel hungover?” Lost in your own lows, it is easier to focus your attention on the fault lines of others. I found myself getting caught in negative mind loops. The same type of mental traps I had seen my father blinded by. Soon it became clear that S.A.D., Seasonal Affective Disorder, was a real thing. And there was no doubt my neurotransmitters were misfiring. We are after all, little communities of chemical compounds.  We are forever mixing with the eco-systems around us and within us. Could it be that my internal eco-system was just not meant to mix with the wetness of the South?

The first noble truth of Buddhism is that “Life is suffering,” and this suffering begins in our minds. I wondered how surrounded by so much nature and love from family, I could be battling such negativity. I tried shifting my thoughts with mindfulness as the gloominess continued to loom. Hoping to access blissful places I had been before, I meditated and practiced yoga as often as I could. But it was the forest walks that became a true place of solace. I knew plants communicated between themselves through an internal chemistry.  So, I attempted to connect my feelings to the trees and wind, seeking guidance and wholeness. Taking tree hugging quiet literally, I embraced them. I felt as if the tree would transmit some pearl of wisdom through perhaps a secret whisper in the wind?  Like a monk transfers energy to his brush, he relays the essence of his subject with only a few simple strokes. 

When winter finally broke, new lime-green growth tickled out of long mature pine branches.  A lost smile was reborn within me. At last, it was time to leave the total-fail, freezing-cold rental house. We were off to experience life in our almost-finished little cabin. We would home school our daughter and she was happy to be over the commute. But only a short time after we settled in, the first of a series of volcanic eruptions began. The iconic Volcano Villarrica (resembling the famous mount Fuji) blew first.  It caused a red alert affecting areas up to ten kilometers around the volcano. Even our friends, who embraced the seasonal forces of the South, evacuated their home.  The eruption turned from spectacular to malevolent. The massive explosion and pyroclastic display woke people in their sleep.  The eruption caused the evacuation of 3,385 people in nearby communities.   

We had been in Chile for 234 days.  I knew because my computer told me, “No backups for 234 days.” Over seven months of no back up. Yep, my personal metaphor. We had endured a never-ending rainy season followed by a record breaking dry summer. Epic forest fires blazed on in five regions and burned over 20,000 hectares of pristine lands.  Scientists reported—all this due to climate change. The South turned out to be exhilarating in a what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here? sort of way, and less in a sense of what-a-great-sustainable-living-adventure!  

One afternoon about a month after the eruption at Villarrica I was doing the dishes. Out of the window, I saw a plume of ashen clouds billowing up over the Andes, across the lake. We soon realized what we were witnessing.  Though a three-hour car ride away and we could see it. A fifteen-kilometer eruption blasted into the atmosphere, from the depths of Volcano Calbuco.  And later that night, another eruption painted an apocalyptic red glow against the horizon. The event caused airline flight cancellations in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Authorities evacuated 4,000 people from a zone with a 20 km radius from the volcano. Would you care to guess where our other little piece of land is in Chile? That’s right: at the foot of Volcano Calbuco. The land left pummeled and enveloped in almost a meter of volcanic debris. The majestic white volcanos we fell in love with were now obsidian-black, looming like evil-twin stand-ins. When you imagine a volcanic eruption it can feel exciting. There is a natural magnetism that pulls you towards it. Experiencing them first hand though, and how mighty they are, brings a new awareness. All the expressions, rumblings and fiery cauldrons beneath the earth mirrored my own emotions. 

A few weeks after the eruption at Calbuco, there was no longer any threat of ashy winds. I was washing off a little spot on a clear, glass pitcher. I realized the imperfection was actually a blood blister on the pad of my fingertip on the other side of the glass.  Noticing this made me laugh out loud. I stood there in our little kitchen, with a view of heaven on earth.  And it dawned on me how much I had tried to control—everything. I tried to control my own grieving process, my husband’s free will, you name it. I realized that when we perceive imperfections, it is our inability to accept the world as it is.  We speak out about all that is wrong with everything “out there”, but the flaw is in our own thinking. Just like the volcanos cool the earth through eruptions, our own fires need to burn. Through purification we weed out what is unnecessary andfertilize what’s left. So that we may grow. I learned that when depressed or immobilized by grief we often deny what arises. The more we attempt to control and push away the messy parts, the more we deny life itself. As Rumi said, “Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise.”  

It became clear to me that I had been desperate for praise.  I longed for someone to tell me how amazing I had been in the aftermath of my dad’s suicide.  When I didn’t get it, I began to deny my own praise of the world. It was then that I had to surrender.  I leaned into my depression and began to stop identifying with my sad story. That is when I found more inner space. In that inner space, the materialistic, anthropocentric world dissolves. A truer connection to life arises when humans are no longer the central players on this earth. I knew I was not my thoughts (positive or negative) but something far more eternal. Something that exists in integration with all that is. 

Our intuition, like pure consciousness, brings information from a source deep within. It is undistorted by subjectivity and emotional drama. This inner voice sheds light on the truth, that we, indeed, already have the answers we seek. In essence, our greatest teacher, is always right here and ready to guide if only we choose to listen. 

My intuition took me to the South of Chile, away from the familiar. What did I learn? I learned that though I have a desert soul, by exploring unknown lands, my inner landscape grew.  

I can’t help but wonder though if there are physical places on earth where we just don’t thrive the same way. 

Or, perhaps the saying about the South could apply to a broader picture of life in general:

“If you are having a good day, enjoy it.  If not, that’s life."

Healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world. ~Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche