Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Breaking News!

Finally, happy breaking news!

Our son, Nico, is back in Chile after over 6 years in the U.S. with a short stint in Costa Rica. Laura, his partner, arrives next Tuesday. Time to celebrate with a real family Thanksgiving. Another addition to the family is Frida, a Costa Rican rescue dog, who we think may be part terrier, part pincher. She wakes us in the morning jumping on our bed and giving a quick lick to our faces.
It's fun having a son living at home for a while. He is a Mr. Fix-it, offering to make home improvements. I love it!

My second happy news flash is that I have a contract for my second book, Notes from the Bottom of the World, A Life in Chile, to be published November 20, 2018 by She Writes Press. Whopee!!

Saturday, October 21, 2017


The Familiar
Back again in my hometown for my yearly visit, I soak up the rich scents of vegetation – elm, bay and sequoia trees – and the familiar birdsong as I stand on the deck overlooking the creek of my adoptive family’s house. They receive me warmly as in the past and inform me that a coyote family has taken up residence by the creek. I’ll hear them howling at night.
I take a walk along the main street, San Anselmo Avenue, past the Coffee Roastery, where I’ll meet with old classmates on Saturday, the firehouse, Hilda’s Coffee Shop and Booksmith, my favorite bookstore. Sadly, I notice many empty storefronts in this town that used to draw antique buffs on weekends. I drive to my old neighborhood, park and walk past the home where I grew up. On my route I notice new 2 million dollar houses – the gentrification of a once modest middle class neighborhood.

I call old friends and set up dates for coffee or lunch. With a college classmate we take a nostalgic stroll across the Berkeley campus. On a glorious sunny day I take the ferry to San Francisco to meet with the editor who’s been guiding me through my manuscript. My oldest friend, Paula, and I share many meals, reminiscing on pets, childhood in the barrio, and names of nuns at St. Anselm’s School. Sister Eulalie Rose, Sister Miriam Josepha, Sister Benigna (a favorite). Nothing can compare with sharing childho0d memories with a dear friend.
St. Anselm's School

 The Unexpected
Raging wildfires to the north mark my final week. Heavy smoke, like thick fog, creeps silently into our world. My adoptive family takes in a family of four Santa Rosa evacuees, their four boxers and a sack of twenty ball pythons. (They have beautiful markings. I actually ask to hold one in my hand.) Mom and Dad python are left behind, but survive. 
A canine evacuee

The kitchen becomes a busy place, people and dogs coming and going, cooking for nine and conveying the latest fire updates. The evacuees stay close to the television, watching the flames consume entire residential neighborhoods, not knowing for days if their house is safe.
The Tragic
Another guest in the house is an Iraqi war veteran who suffered brain damage and PTSD- post traumatic stress disorder. He describes to us how the vehicle he was driving hit an IED. His halting speech and awkward bearing are the outward signs of trauma. He attempts to fit into the household routine and participate in table conversation – to be normal – but in moments of weakness seeks relief in drugs. My heart goes out to that young man. Those in national positions of power would think twice before sending men and women off to war if they could spend time with these young victims.

I mustn’t end on a sad note. Once more I’ve been able to enjoy the richness of this landscape where I grew up and I’ve experienced a diverse sampling of American life: the generous sacrifice of firefighters, the growing presence of Latinos in the work force, a friend’s struggle to make ends meet, another friend recovering from cancer surgery, televised baseball playoffs, the pleasure of old friends and the limitless generosity of my hosts, whom I now refer to as “my adoptive family.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


 “Have you ever smoked marihuana?” she asks me.
“Oh, a few times when I lived in Berkeley and once in Colombia. That one really packed a punch.”
Three of us – me, a recently-widowed friend whose country house we’re in, and her sister-in-law – are in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch outside under a welcome early spring sun.
“We’ve always wanted to try it. “
“Maybe it’ll help with arthritis pain.”
“I can’t even cut an apple with my right wrist.”
“It’s my left wrist that hurts.”
“I’ve often thought that I’d like to try pot again,” I say. “It’s on my bucket list.”
“What’s it like?”
“It can enhance your senses, makes colors and shapes jump out at you, like a 3-D movie. It also makes you laugh.”
“Just what we want! Let’s do it, out here in the country, just the three of us when no one else is around.”
“But where would we get it?” I ask. “Can you imagine asking one of our kids to locate some for us?” We burst out laughing.
“Time goes so fast – after 60. What makes a person “old?” asks one.
“I think it’s when nothing surprises you anymore.”
“I think it’s when you stop being curious,” I say.
“Exercise is so important now to keep us active. My husband was exhausted yesterday after watering our seventeen potted plants.”
“Yeah, they have no idea of all that we do.”
We gorge on brownies I’ve brought. “I could make us brownies with pot for a start,” I offer.
“At this age, I doubt it could cause any brain damage.”
“Besides, we could die at any time,” says my widowed friend.
“I’ve done a few things recently that were on my list of things to do before I die” I say. “I went river rafting and kayaking and even rode tandem on a motorcycle.”
“We can’t wait until it’s too late.”
“Yeah, there are the things I’ve never done and now never will, like wearing a strapless dress.”
“We really don’t need pot to start us laughing.”
The moon is shining brightly when we hug goodnight in the doorway. “Now don’t forget. You’ve included me in your marihuana group!” I say.

A voice calls from the dark, “Does anyone know how to roll cigarettes?”

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Just overnight, it seems, several white blossoms have opened on our old apricot tree, harbingers of sweet summer fruit and announcing the advent of spring. 

Other signs of this season of hope are surfacing in our garden: the first fragrant freesia blooms, fragile California poppy seedlings (I’ve marked off their area with small sticks to protect them from the gardener’s shovel), pink snapdragons and blue forget-me-nots. Birds know it’s almost nesting time. Our resident turtle doves have taken to chasing each other, warming up for mating. Regular as clockwork, the juices of renewal and birth appear. Small miracles. The air is still cold, yet trees, flowers and birds know it’s that time.

All these signs of spring inject me with energy and hope, a time of looking forward: to the warmth of the spring sun on my back, more time in the out-of-doors and the upcoming visit of our youngest son and his girlfriend. Like the birds, my nesting instinct is activated. I’ve contacted a painter to do some small jobs around the house. We just bought a new barbeque and can’t wait for warmer days to invite family and friends to enjoy our backyard and share a meal. I’ve contracted spring cleaning fever, anxious to clear out accumulations of junk and papers. I’m giving the paper shredder a workout.

The gardener and his son (Daniel and Daniel) pruned our avocado tree a month ago. The tree, now over thirty years old, grew from a pit planted by our son, Nico, as a child. The pruning allowed us to harvest over 400 avocados. What pleasure to give the fruits of our harvest to family and friends. Suddenly, they’re all ripening at once, which has me racing to find takers. Another small miracle in our garden is an heirloom tomato plant that wintered over and now has its first tomato.

Rain is predicted for tomorrow. A spring christening that azaleas, the camellia, the hydrangeas, the sequoia and all their garden neighbors will welcome .

Sunday, August 6, 2017

My Love Affair

I’ve been meaning to buy a new one, but the old one, split in half with loose pages, does me just fine. I’m not sure how long I’ve had it, so I open to the first page to check the date. “Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus” reads the title page. But, what’s this? My son’s name is written in the top right hand corner and, under his name, “Berkeley Fall 98.” He must have bought it when he arrived to Berkeley as an exchange student.
            My Thesaurus and I are inseparable. It has been my faithful wordsmith throughout my years of crafting Word Prompts for my writing group, blog posts, magazine articles and essays, multiple edits and re-edits of a memoir and a collection of narrative essays. This yellowing, battered treasure has been my salvation in my struggle to extract words from the tangled jungle of my shrinking memory word bank. I say “shrinking” because in a non-English speaking country, a plethora of words fall by the linguistic wayside from lack of exposure and use.
            Logophile: a lover of words. I embrace them, their multiple meanings and uses and sounds. Gleeful gladiolas, riotous revelry. Magnificent metaphors and sly similes, allusions and delusions, hysterical hyperbole and holy hosannas. A scene of beauty, a moment of ecstasy, a spark of understanding – on the wings of words all can be revealed. The incredible silkiness of an owl feather, the trill of a canary, the tingle of a spicy, hot pepper, a watermelon sunset, the heady scent of spring’s first acacia blooms.
            Some ask why I don’t use the Thesaurus online. Habit. And there’s the pleasure of turning its pages, immersing myself its world of words. When I hit a word block, I gently pull it from the bookshelf and fit together its two halves. I turn the pages eagerly, hunting for just the word. I then try out the alternatives until I reach that satisfying aha! moment. Got it. The perfect word for the occasion. Sesquipedalian.

My dear old Thesaurus Rex.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Coco Fifty Years Later

During our recent trip to Costa Rica, I knew I had to return to Playa del Coco. Fifty years earlier, while traveling by land back to California after our two year Peace Corps stint in Colombia, Barbara and I took a local bus to Playa del Coco in northern Costa Rica. It was a small town and we stayed in a very minimal cabin facing the beach. I took two photos while I was there. One of a veranda with a thatched roof and the other of a lone tree on the beach.

            When I learned that this Costa Rica trip would take us near Coco, as the locals call it, I dug around in a box of old photos until coming across those two possible Coco photos. I say ‘possible’ because I hadn’t labeled them.
            So now our group – my son, his girlfriend Laura, his Argentine friend Sebastián, my husband and I and Frida, the rescue dog – piled into the worn pickup truck and bounced the forty minutes into “town”, Playa del Coco, now a rather shabby but bustling tourist destination. Nothing looked familiar to me – until we reached the beach. I looked up and down the curving stretch of white sand, trying to recall the moments all those years ago when I’d stood in that very place. I showed the group my two photos and we set off down the beach to find where I’d snapped the tree-on-beach photo.
“There, those hills bordering the beach look just like these in the photo.”
“You’re right!”
“Isn’t that your tree?”
“Oh, my gosh! It is!”
I ran up to it and wanted to hug it. There was no mistaking it’s broad, deep green leaves and its tilt towards the ocean. It hadn’t grown a lot in fifty years. They snapped several photos of me under my tree. 

I filled with nostalgia for the young woman who’d stood on this spot five decades earlier, never imagining I’d be there again in later life. I was moved by something more that has taken me some time to identify. The place had taken on a special meaning for me. Perhaps it was euphoria or gratitude – not only for the possibility of returning, but also for a deep sense of completeness.
            I still had the other photo to identify and needed to locate someone who’d been here in 1967. Walking along the beachfront, I spotted an elderly ice cream vendor with a friend. Aha!
“Señor, are you from here?”
“Then maybe you can help me. I took this photo here fifty years ago, but I don’t recognize this place.”
“Oh, that was the Playa del Coco Casino. It’s no longer there.”
“Muchas gracias! Would you mind if I took a photo with you to commemorate this fifty years event?”

We posed, smiling, in front of his ice cream cart, Playa del Coco and the Pacific in the background. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Intermittent Friendships

A newspaper journalist reported in her column having visited six countries and boarded ten airplanes in the past few weeks. She made time in her schedule to visit briefly some dear friends, exercising the style of friendship that she has accepted as the only one possible: intermittent friendship. The phrase catches my attention.  It seems to describe many of my friendships as an expat/immigrant. Are these friendships as superficial as the term sounds?

My first two decades in Chile, I only managed to travel to the States every two years to visit my parents and, like the journalist, I got together briefly with a couple of friends.  We had no Internet at that time so contact consisted of Christmas cards with a letter enclosed. Many of my teacher friends at the International school where I taught eventually moved on. I still keep in touch with Kristina although we haven’t seen each other in thirty or more years. What keeps us friends?  Perhaps because we both are readers and writers and have lived the expat life. I cannot say that we continue to be as close we once were, but we did have that spontaneous connect at one time, and now keep in touch commenting on each other’s blogs. If we were to see each other again, I’m certain we’d have plenty to talk about.
Internet has allowed me to reconnect with former classmates from high school and the university. Though I no longer have family in my hometown, I return every year to get together with my dear friends and experience that beloved landscape of my growing years. Those days when we’re catching up at the Coffee Roasters or doing lunch and visiting the De Young Museum in San Francisco feel so complete.  How much I enjoy these friends. How is it that we still call each other “friend”, although we’d been out of touch for long periods of time? I believe it’s because we shared significant periods in our lives: childhood, high school, university. I’ve known my closest, dearest friend and soul sister all my life. Our parents were friends. She knows me better than anyone. Our long phone conversations every week nourish our friendship.
Yearly visits are wonderful and frustrating. I want to spend more time with these friends. On my return flights to Chile I think of them – Judy, Barb, Melodie, Vreni – on that shrinking landscape below and regret that those friendships are intermittent and interrupted and only partially satisfying, leaving me with a sense of loss.
In Chile many of my friends are also expatriates which immediately gives these relationships a unique character. We are from different countries or different States; we didn’t go to school together; we didn’t know each other as children; we are often traveling back “home.” We lead double lives, no matter how long we’ve been here. Our contacts are often intermittent in spite of having known each other for years. How solid are these friendships?

 Being expats is precisely the strong connection that enables us to relate. We’ve had to adjust to a different culture and language. We know what it feels like to leave family and close friends behind. It is even possible to overcome the lack of a common background. I’d never visited Iowa and Wisconsin, but made the trip to spend a week there because my dear friend Ann, who I’ve known for twenty years here in Chile, spends her summers there near family and childhood friends. Our two lives – U.S. childhood and Chile adulthood – came together. I remind her that it’s now her turn to visit my hometown.