The Upside of a Meltdown

DR mural trio.jpg

How did that trip come about, anyway?

It's funny how big events in your life can often be traced back to a single, seemingly inconsequential decision. Or in this case, to a meltdown that led to a decision.

You might remember that this past summer, my daughter Natalie and I embarked on All Hands Art's first international business trip of sorts—a mosaic mural-making adventure to the Dominican Republic. This trip was instigated and facilitated by a Peace Corps Volunteer named Diana (shown above, at right) living in Batey Isabela, a small community in the southwest region of the DR.

Lots of people have asked how this project came about. And why, specifically, there?

Well, the simple answer is "serendipity."

In truth, it started with a meltdown.

The more detailed answer involves a mother's spontaneous meltdown—call it a complete maternal freakout—followed by some deep breaths and an action plan.

That small action precipitated a conversation, which led to a phone call, which ultimately resulted in our trip.

Let me explain.

It was the morning of June 24, 2015. My then-16-year-old daughter would be boarding a plane that night, for an eight week adventure in the DR. We'd prepared for this for months.

What washed over me suddenly was that she was also going to be living with a new "mother" for the summer. I was being replaced. That, I had not prepared myself for.

As she was home calmly packing and calling friends to say good-bye, I was pacing Oakland's Lakeshore Avenue in panicked tears, thinking OhmygodOhmygodOhmygod.

My visceral reaction was unexpected and severe. I could see the concern in the eyes of passers-by on the bustling street.

I'm not usually a control freak, but we all have our moments.

I walked to the nearby park and sat down. There were more tears, but fewer people around, and I had to figure out what was going on. And get a grip.

I decided that being able to somehow connect with this Replacement Mom would help me feel more in control of the situation. I wanted to communicate my thanks and good wishes to her (but not my jealousy), and sort of hand my baby off in a personal way. But how?

Art saves the day, again.

As usual, my first thought was: artwork. I bought a modest picture frame, and when I got home, Natalie helped me choose a small print of one of my paintings to put in it. Then I spent a therapeutic hour or so with a Spanish-English dictionary, writing a note to Natalie's Summer Mom in two languages—hers and mine. Natalie would deliver this small gift when she arrived at her homestay in the Dominican Republic. With it, I would establish some thread of a connection. And a little piece of me would take the trip with her.

By the time we were waving goodbye at SFO that night, I was back in one piece.

Here's where it gets interesting.

Fast forward a few weeks. Mark and I were adjusting to our quiet nest. I had internalized the "no news is good news" mantra of Amigos de las Americas (Natalie's program), and I'd also forgotten about the little gift of artwork.

Over in Batey Isabela, however, there were stirrings. Sergia, the recipient of the framed print, had displayed it on a shelf in her home, where it was seen by Diana, that Peace Corps Volunteer I mentioned, who lived a few doors down. Diana inquired about it: It was from Natalia's mother. Diana asked Natalie about her mother's work, and learned that I was a muralist.

"I've been wanting to do a mural here, but I didn't know how to get one going! Do you think your mom would want to come to Batey Isabela and lead a mural project??"

Famous last words

Let me insert here that the very last thing I'd said to Natalie before she boarded the plane a month before, was along these lines: "You are about to do my favorite kind of travel. You're going somewhere for a specific and useful purpose. And you're staying for a while in one community, so you'll really get a glimpse into how the people there live."

So of course when Diana asked if she thought I'd want to come lead a mural project, Natalie's answer was "Yeah, I'm pretty sure she would!" (Duh!)

That conversation led to a phone call, but there's more to it. Let me put that call in context.


Amigos de las Americas is a non-profit institution that just turned 50. (To learn more about Amigos, click here.) It's almost as old and well-established as the Peace Corps, and is very similar in its mission and values.

All throughout Natalie's year-long training leading up to the summer program with Amigos, I'd been reminiscing about and making comparisons with my own Peace Corps experience. A big one was that she was going to be completely unplugged from her normal, technologically-linked, teenage American life for eight weeks. No cell phone, no texting, no Facebook/Instagram/SnapChat, etc. And likely no internet cafe within range.

Handwritten letters would be the mode, and they'd take several weeks in transit. With one exception.

Just one phone call home. Usually.

Amigos allows each participant one phone call home mid-summer, lasting about 5 minutes. This call is scheduled in advance, and some kids actually write down what they want to say before the call, because the time is short and there's lots to convey. Their parents are going to be desperate for information, listening closely to the tone of every sentence. And then hanging on those words for the rest of the non-communicative summer.

I had already received that call (she sounded great, by the way).

A few days later, I got another call. Natalie opened this one with, "I'm ok! There's nothing wrong! Everything is fine!" because the primary reason to get another call would be in case of some dire emergency.

No emergency. Just an invitation to plan an adventure.

When she asked if I was interested in coming to lead a mural project, of course my answer was, "Yes, absolutely, 100% yes!" That dramatic second phone call set our mural-making trip to the Dominican Republic in motion.

We did it!

Natalie and I returned, approximately one year after the fateful telephone conversation, to her very same community. We stayed in Sergia's home. There, in the front room, was the shelf displaying the art print that started it all.

During our ten-day stay in Batey Isabela, we did what we set out to do in that call: we made a mural.

We also accomplished a goal I'd had, of taking my art-making work overseas, specifically to the developing world. I hope it's the first of many such excursions.

(You can see photos of the barely-controlled chaos of making it here. And watch a short video here.)

(You can read more about the challenges of preparation, and loss of sleep leading up to the trip here.)

The Upside of Meltdowns

I'm thankful that I dug down into why I was freaking out about Natalie's trip, and that I took action. After all, I could have just wiped my tears and braced myself for her departure.

That's the upside about losing your cool: It's a loud signal that something's awry. Once you trace it back to the root cause, then, with some effort and some hope, you can take positive action.

The Downside of Serendipity

My particular action led to an opportunity, and I jumped on it. That's the beauty of serendipity.

Here's the tricky part: Because this trip came along sort of by accident, I've found myself waiting for the next happy accident to drop into my lap. Oops.

I'm challenging myself now to actively seek out the next overseas mural-making site, instead of hoping for another magical phone call. The question is not, Who will invite me? It's Where do I want to go? And who's ready to tackle this adventure with me?

But I'm still open to serendipity. :)

What about you?

On meltdowns: Has one of yours ever led to a great opportunity or breakthrough?

On serendipity: Are you waiting for life to hand you a sweet situation, or are you seeking yours out?

I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.