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?”
“Sí”
“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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Living with Jungle Critters

Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. The strange noise wakes and frightens me. Something has invaded the sleeping area of our large safari tent. A frog? A large beetle? A snake? All kinds of creatures inhabit this Costa Rican jungle. It could be anything. Kiss-kiss-kiss. My husband sleeps peacefully beside me, so it’s not him. I sit up in bed and shine my headlamp over the canvas walls and high ceiling where a large fan revolves. Nothing. But the noise continues. Finally sleep overcomes my fear.

Costa Rica has between 200,000 and 250,000 species of insects. This doesn’t surprise me. At least a third of them must dwell in this forest. As I ascend the trail from our tent, perspiration streaming down my face, the air vibrates with the deafening, incessant buzz of cicadas. Ahead of me two black beetles with yellow stripes scurry under a log. Tiny insects flutter past. I stop to observe a moving trail of green triangles, just the hard-working leaf ants bearing their cargo to their underground nest. Lizards scamper away as I approach. This air, this soil pulsates with activity.

At breakfast in the main tent, I’m taking in the panoramic view of the blue-green water of the Pacific when I hear the kissing noise again.
“Did you hear that?” I say to the others. “That’s what was in our tent last night.”
“It’s a gecko,” says my son, who, along with his girlfriend, is managing this eco-lodge.
What relief. I can live with the tiny salamander-like geckos which creep about on walls and ceilings. They eat insects. So do some birds, like the flycatcher we spot and the colorful squirrel cuckoo which dines on cicadas, wasps and caterpillars. The white-nosed coati that passed by our tent was no doubt foraging for tasty beetles and spiders. Insects are not even safe at night. Sitting at a small bar lit by a string of tiny lights along its base, we discover a nocturnal visitor, a large warty toad whom we name Kermit, or Rana René, as  they say in Costa Rica. I watch his tongue flick out in a flash to devour bugs drawn to the light. He makes quick work of a very large grasshopper. Later we meet several of Kermit’s cousins further along the walkway.
Other jungle inhabitants prefer hanging out in trees, like the howling monkeys pigging out on the mangoes dangling over our heads. The ceibo trees are in full brilliant bloom, their red flowers attracting a multitude of yellow butterflies.
We descend from our hilltop lodgings to an uninhabited white beach. Well, not exactly uninhabited. Hermit crabs hide in tiny shells while the larger ghost crabs speed to their burrows or into the sea as I approach. I follow uniquely patterned prints in the sand to depressions covering the eggs deposited the night before by two sea turtles. How many will survive? Then I notice wiggly prints in the sand. “A snake!” I call to the others. It’s a yellow-bellied sea snake struggling to return to the water.
My son points out a drama unfolding in the shallows – hundreds of tiny fish fleeing over the surface in leaps and bounds to escape a large dark shadow visible just behind them. Fish face danger from overhead as well, where pelicans glide and frigate birds soar watching for a catch.
The word to describe this landscape is intense. Intense heat. Intense rains. Flamboyant oranges, yellows and vibrant greens. Countless varieties of unique species, all working members of a complex, wondrous living network.  I know that I have only glimpsed an infinitesimal part of this jungle world.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Otoño


My garden reveals its own names for the seasons. Today it tells me that fall is the time when:
the hummingbirds return to town after their summer get-away.
chrysanthemums perfume the air with their pungent scent.
bougainvillaea petals among the chrysanthemums

the leaves on the snowball bush blush in tones of burgundy.
yellowing leaves of the apricot tree flutter to the ground.
camellia branches bear swelling buds, pregnant with promise
leaves on the tomato plants recoil from the cold.
turtle doves and chincoles discover something of great interest in the dry weeds where a lawn once grew
the scent of wet, dry leaves evokes childhood memories
a hungry thrush feeds on the red berries of the nandina doméstica
sequoia branches sway in greeting to the wily wind

and sister sun follows a more northern path
street sweeper with Chilean rake

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Egg Lady



“Remember going out to Mrs. Bianchi’s?"
Paula laughs. “Yes! The egg lady!”
Our long distance, weekly phone calls replenish our spirits.
Together we reminisce driving with our moms out to the northern California hamlet of Woodacre, a primarily Italian community of houses, farms, a church and a general store embraced by rolling hills. We’d turn off the main road to a country lane and pull up in front of white wooden house set behind a fence. There we’d buy fresh country eggs. Ours were not big families, yet our mothers felt it was worth the effort to make the trip. It wasn’t far, but it was out in the country.
            “My mother always gave me soft boiled eggs for breakfast.” I tell Paula. “I hated that runny gelatinous slime. It would stand before me turning cold as I tried to gather up the courage to eat it.”
“Me,too! Awful! Just couldn’t get them down and would barf all over my St. Anselm’s school uniform!”
“Those early soft-boiled ruined me for eggs for life!” We howl with laughter at this yet another convergence in our childhood memories.
I haven’t changed my opinion over the years. Scrambled and egg salad I’ll accept. Forget poached, fried or eggs Benedict. I now justify my egg phobia pointing to the mass egg production process, herding thousands of hens into wire cages with no elbow room and just food and water. Only free-range go into my shopping cart.
            I can no longer picture Mrs. Bianchi, but I do remember the trip. What a treat sharing those memories with Paula, recollections only she and I, as lifelong friends, can appreciate. Our phone conversations ripple with laughter:
“Remember the Russian Dance in ballet class with those flowered headdresses and streamers we’d wear?”I ask.
“Yes! Yes!”
“Didn’t your mother have an old grey Plymouth?”
“Yeah. It was a 1939 coupe, dark grey, had running boards (remember those?) and a rumble seat.”

“Remember our buckeye apple fight with those mean kids in your neighborhood? I’d walk alone over to your house over hill and dale. No roads or subdivisions between my house and yours.”
“I know.”
“What was the name of that crazy, untrainable dog you had?”
“Folly.”
“That’s right! Now that Easter is coming up, I think of the photo of us decked in our Easter dresses and hats sitting in our front garden.” I say.
“And the gin fizzes that our parents drank Easter morning.”
            “At your house.”
“No, it was your house!”
“Sometimes we’d go to the Hamilton House in Fairfax for Easter brunch.”
“I remember that place, right across the road from where you and I go every year for dinner.”
Our restaurant.”
“Let’s have a long distance toast on Easter.”
“Yes, let’s. Cheers.”
“Love you.”





Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Fall Explorations

 These golden-brown fall days spark nostalgia. The scent of wet leaves underfoot and a wood fire. A campfire. Bright crackling flames in a dome of darkness. Roasting marshmallows and singing old Girl Scout ditties: Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander...
Fall is bright days punctuated by an occasional shadowy day, like today. I pull on my Berkeley sweatshirt and take off for a stroll. I am grateful for the growing coolness after the harsh summer heat and savor the soughing of the paper-dry leaves waving to the breezes, tapping like strings of wooden beads.

Five months without respite from this city stirs in me a need for a distant, uninterrupted horizon stretching out before me. Forest and ferns, paths through moist soil, gurgling streams, fresh cool air filling my lungs. While I wait for an escape to the countryside, I take refuge in a new book, Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration. Just what I need. The author, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, begins to ‘ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl.’ He wonders who created the trail and why does it exist. Some trails are very old, often starting as animal paths. Usually, no one person made the trail; it just emerged satisfying a need
            I wish I’d read this before treading the many paths I’ve covered over the years. Trails invite me to appreciate and communicate with the natural world, maybe spotting a kingfisher, a frog, a coyote, or a delicate forest orchid. But did I stop to wonder how this trail emerged or who were the first to walk it? Native peoples? Deer? Rabbits? Wild boar? I think we humans share most trails with animals. Though smaller animals – skunks, rabbits, badgers – have an advantage over us, carving narrow paths through thickets and prickly grasses where we just do not comfortably fit.

Chilean kingfisher

            Although a sporadic hiker, I possess a deep treasury of trail memories which bring me great pleasure. In case my memory fails, I can turn to my travel journals that include descriptions of the trails I’ve known. Yet, what gives me the most joy is recalling sharp visual memories of those landscapes – whether they be Patagonian glacial moraines or slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada – which I can call up on a moment’s notice.
Mr. Moor explores the deeper meanings of paths: the roads we choose to follow in life. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken comes to mind. Many writers and philosophers have pondered these meanings: Emerson, Wendell Berry, Lord Byron, Bruce Chatwin in Songlines. Rebecca Solnit devotes an entire book to exploring people’s meanderings in Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I don’t know which will be my next trail, but I do know I’ll be pondering its origins. Will I unknowingly leave a subtle sign here marking my passing? A bent fern frond? A footprint?  Will I be changed by having taken this path? Will it have made all the difference?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Sweater Weather

Three days into fall and our first overcast day. Fog. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d know fog anywhere. The deep bass sounds of the fog horns are rooted in my childhood memories. I can read the sky. The fog will not clear today. I sit sipping two cups of coffee, alternating my attention from Wolf Blitzer to the pairs of doves and sparrows poking in the grass for tidbits.
            Silence pervades our house (aside from the television which I’ve now turned off, totally disgusted with the repetition and evasion of spokesmen and lawmakers). My husband is away for five days, off to a southern lakeside home with his running pals. I enjoy having days home alone. I consider the possibilities of how I’ll spend my time. My first decision is to eat only salads while he’s gone and cycle at the gym across the street every day. This is day three and I’ve stuck to my guns.
I’ve watched more television than I’d like. There’s a TV at the gym and I get caught up in sugary, totally predictable dramas, even hurrying home to watch the finale. An inner voice tells me that I’m not spending my time well. I wrote in my last blog post of my admiration for astrophysicist Neil de Grass Tyson who stated that knowing he’s going to die someday gives the focus to his life. I feel impelled to do something productive in my days. Yet…I tell myself that we all need some lightness and fantasy in our lives. Perhaps watching that silly movie earlier has loosened my writing tongue.
An overcast day spent in solitude encourages thoughtfulness. My thoughts are with my son and his girlfriend, who at this moment are flying from New York City to Costa Rica to a new job and an adventurous change. My son was feeling melancholy these past days, moving out of his apartment and leaving friends and the city that was his home for the past five years. I feel his sadness. New beginnings often start with difficult partings.


So what have I accomplished today? Aside from Pilates class and cycling? Well, I did plant the two lavenders in the large pots be the front door. I look out the window to admire them. And I painted my nails (clear polish) which I seldom make the time to do. I’m overdue posting something on my blog so I’m working on that at the moment. I tried to call my soul sister in California, but no answer. Think I’ll try again. Then maybe I’ll tackle the pile of papers waiting to be shredded, a boring job that is best done a little at a time.
I’m saving the best for last today. My sister-in-law and I will go downtown to attend a concert by the Orquesta Sinfónica. Tchaikowsky and Greig. Music for the soul on a foggy day.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Small Joys

My Facebook and emails overwhelm me with multiple petitions to sign – save the elephants, no to Environmental Protection Agency budget and staff cuts, investigate Trump’s ties with Russia – and I sign them all. I’d vowed to cut my addition to Face book “news” and to CNN, but I haven’t been very successful. Quite honestly, I haven’t tried. Today I miss Wolf Blitzer only because I forget that last Saturday the U.S. went on daylight savings time, so all the programs are an hour later for us in Chile.
            Buried amidst the repetitious posts and emails on the U.S. administration’s latest gaffs and lies, I discover some gems: a video interview with Neil de Grass Tyson, astrophysicist, a new acquaintance of mine. He expressed so eloquently the philosophy of life that I hold to now in my seventieth decade: Knowing that he’ll die creates the focus that he brings to being alive. He speaks of the urgency of accomplishments and the need to express love NOW.
            Reconfirming and expanding on these weighty thoughts are quotes from writers I find in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings newsletter. Two more gems are from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives.” And on a post-it stuck to my computer screen you will find: “Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day.” Then there are words from Hermann Hesse praising life’s small joys. He asserts that the most available and most overlooked of small joys is our everyday contact with nature. Oh yes.
Brainpickings is addictive. One article links me to another which connects me to a book or an author. I stop to look at an illustration by Maurice Sendak in Ruth Krauss’ book Open House for Butterflies of a small boy sitting by a stream with the caption: “Everybody should be quiet near a stream and listen.” Something I do whenever I can, but not often enough. Streams are not readily available to the big city dweller.
Speaking of city dwellers, writer and photographer Bill Hayes comments on life in New York City, saying he makes a point of waving or nodding hello whenever he can. “…kindness”, he says, “is repaid in unexpected ways….”

My city garden offers me many small joys. This summer I’ve been watching closely the progress of my four potted heirloom tomato plants. I’m learning as I go. Because they are potted, the plants are not very big. I resort to Google to find out why their leaves have curled. Too hot? Too much water? One has several tomatoes, slightly larger than golf balls. We ate the first two to ripen. Absolutely divine. Definitely worth the effort. And the scent of their leaves – heavenly.

More garden events: at summer’s end the apricot leaves are turning lemony yellow and falling to the ground; the abundant avocados grow steadily; the nasturtium leaves are infested with little green voracious caterpillars, the result of eggs laid by white butterflies; two azalea bushes have their first blooms; the camellia is covered with buds, promising winter color.
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

                                                                                   John Muir

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Way of Water or What to Do with My Anger

My anger seethes. In theory, I know it is not healthy, yet I seek out what produces it. It’s an addiction. My anger came to a peak after watching the movie “Welcome to Sarajevo.” Critics claimed it was not accurate and that there are better movies about the Bosnian War. Still, it brought home to me the horrifying consequences of war, particularly for children. I immediately thought of the ongoing suffering of the children of Syria. These tragedies are happening now, in the present and, yet, the current American President wants to build up the military and reduce the budget for diplomacy and the environment. There is the root of my anger – a Presidency that foments anger, hatred and fear and mocks the values of honesty, tolerance and compassion. I recommend that the current Administration be locked    in a room and shown “Welcome to Sarajevo,” the current documentary “The White Helmets” and Al Gore’s “The Uncomfortable Truth,” exposing them to the raw truths they choose to deny.
What to do with my anger? I found a positive answer in the latest blog by writer, Ursula LeGuin. The current political climate also has her asking the question: What do I do? She says: “I am looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.” In the thoughts of Lau Tzu she finds an answer: the way of water. Water is a metaphor for nonviolent resistance, for it is adaptable, changeable, passive, yet unyielding, always going the way it must go. It is a thirst-quenching glass of clear water; it is the persistence of the ocean currents; it is a stream wending its way to the sea.

I will be a part of the resistance, but I must now break my addiction to CNN and Face book if I intend to follow the way of water, 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Tough Lessons

Perspiration streams down my back. The air is ash-laden; another day of record-breaking high temperatures smothers and oppresses.  Is this what an apocalypse feels like? An apocalypse of global warming.
 In my garden I watch honey and bumble bees darting about, alighting on the lacey fragrant flowers of my ilán-ilán tree, their favorite right now. I wonder if this heavy air interferes with their orientation and sensitive sense of smell.
The televised scenes of forests and fields, farm animals and homes being devoured by raging flames feel unreal, more like a Hollywood disaster movie – pine trees converted into flaming torches, unidentifiable carcasses littered on the ground. A farmwoman laments her losses. “Everything,” she cries. “Everything.” Behind her, a scorched washing machine perches atop a pile of rubble. Veterinarians treat the wounds of a horse with a singed forelock. Beekeepers point to their blackened hives and scorched fields.
 Firemen, forest rangers, soldiers and townspeople work together to control the flames with hoses, shovels, rakes and chain saws. Those without tools attempt to smother flames with leafy tree branches.
Relief is on the way. The 747Global Super tanker, thanks to a single donor’s generosity, roars low over the heads of cheering country people, releasing its cargo of water and repellant onto the flaming forest.  It’s the star of each night’s newscasts. To my surprise I notice painted on its fuselage the words Spirit of John Muir, the naturalist responsible for the naming of California’s Yosemite as the first U.S. National Park.
 I feel a renewed faith in humankind watching scenes of hundreds of cars and trucks lining up to take aid to the people of Santa Olga, a town left in ashes. Television and newspaper advertisements provide information for making monetary donations. Beekeepers beg for bags of sugar to make a solution that can keep the bees from starving while their owners search for safe areas.
I know that my garden bees, like all of their species, are well-experienced in cooperation, each performing its assigned task in benefit of the whole hive. Those foragers pollinating our apricot and avocado tree blossoms guarantee our summer harvest. They will return to their hives with their pollen-laden baskets, dance their waggle dance or wave their antennae to inform the others where to find the sweet pollen. I wonder where they’ve established their hives in this city neighborhood. I’m amazed to learn that in winter they instinctively know to crowd together tightly, each bee rotating through the cluster from outside to inside so no bee gets too cold. In hot weather, they fan their wings. Such efficiency. No carbon footprint.


Yet, against wind-whipped wildfires, bees have little defense. They depend upon our care, which we must recognize as a mutually beneficial arrangement. Chilean beekeepers look to move their healthy hives to new lands temporarily, and I wonder how long it will take for the native foliage to recover. One year? Two? Ten? Already a winter of little rain is predicted.
Danger exists that complacency will set in now that the crisis is past. It is easy to forget lessons learned as television and newspaper headlines devote more space to political frauds and the day’s robberies. Yet, the homeless are still homeless; the farmers have no suitable land to farm, and the bees no fields and trees to visit. When will they return to their buzzing, bumbling, pollinating and dancing the waggle as only honey bees know how to do? 

This morning I look up to the wonder of an almost true blue firmament. Lightness fills me after the weeks of a grey, smoke-filled sky. I observe the bees’ velvet touch on the delicate blooms, their patient precision, and feel pleased they find nourishment in my garden. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Chile in Flames

The devastating scenes on television are heartrending. Forests aflame in vast regions of central and southern Chile.  They resemble war scenes: people fleeing with the few possessions they can carry; a pickup truck loaded with a refrigerator; a mattress, a stove; tables, chairs, sofas clustered in the middle of the road. The pueblo of Santa Olga – homes, stores, schools, the firehouse – all reduced to ashes.
            Firefighters with soot-covered faces struggle with heavy hoses. Neighbors and volunteers wield shovels and electric saws removing brush to create a firebreak. But the wind is wily, changing directions, trapping forestry workers and firemen. Ten deaths reported thus far.

            Rumors abound regarding the causes. Several fires seem to be man-made. It is clear that the vast plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees are particularly flammable especially in drought years with continuous high temperatures. What I hear is that native vegetation is more resistant to fire but was clear-cut long ago, probably initially by the Spaniards, in order to plant wheat. But timber was esteemed more profitable, and now Chile has vast tracks of land planted with non-native species.
            As with the tsunami, once again the country has been caught unprepared. Help has arrived from Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Russia. A Chilean woman in the States rented and sent a Global Supertanker to douse water over broad areas. Television shows images of firemen connecting hoses and tanks to supply the plane with water. Residents cheer and laugh when the supertanker flies over their land releasing showers of water.
            This disaster is bringing people together: firemen (who are all volunteers in Chile), soldiers, carabineros, civilians work side by side. The examples of solidarity are heartening: a fireman feeding water to a dog from his water bottle, another cradling a fox pup with burnt paw pads, a newsman comforting a woman who lost everything, neighbors helping neighbors.

            I pray that lessons will be learned from this: the need for preventive measures; the urgent task of dealing with climate change; the recognition of our responsibility as stewards of this fragile Earth.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Unexpected House Guests

An email from my friend, Laura, who left Chile with her four children twenty years ago, announces that she and her daughters are coming here for a funeral and need a place to stay. We have plenty of room, I tell her. Since her last visit thirteen years ago, we’ve only been in touch sporadically; our lives seemingly full and complete with family and work.  I remember her girls as children; now they’re grown women.
We set up dates to meet for dinner, lunch, coffee with other friends from the past, all Americans married to Chileans and who figured we’d always be here. It has been a time for reminiscing the days when our children played together. We wonder, “Whatever happened to….? Do you keep in touch with…?” We arrived in Chile at a time of social and economic turmoil. Oil, meat, basic necessities were in short supply. Protests, terrorist bombs, nighttime curfews were our daily bread. But we were resilient and prevailed in spite of a coup d’état and eighteen years of military dictatorship. Laura and I met at a Lamaze class while expecting our first children forty-three years ago. Doctors and relatives were puzzled by our preference for natural childbirth.
Expat friendships, formed on foreign soil, are particularly vulnerable. Some friends returned to the States. Some divorced or were widowed; others went in search of better economic opportunities. Some of us are still here decades later, sometimes drifting apart when children attended different schools or we settled in different neighborhoods or work left us little time to socialize.
Seated with two of our old gringa group, I am struck by the wonder of this encounter. “Look at us! Grey-haired grandmothers now! Did we ever imagine back then that decades later we’d be sitting around remembering the days when we were young and energetic and hopeful for the future?”
What impresses me is how quickly and easily we reconnect. The basis for friendship is still there. We feel the sorrow of a mother for her deceased child and sympathize with another over the difficulties of dealing long distance with an ailing, aging mother.
“Let’s start up our group again!  Maybe for birthdays?” I suggest.
Another day, four of us meet for lunch. More laughter and questions. We ask about the children we knew as toddlers and now want reassurance that they are doing well. We update each other on our jobs and families and share photos, names and ages of grandchildren.
Laura is the center of attention.
“I remember the cookies you were always making!”
“My Nicholas remembers your old house and the big apricot tree in your backyard.”
“It’s really amazing how we can seem to pick up the threads from when we were last all together.”
Laura’s eyes turn watery. “It’s because we lived through some emotional times with each other.”

Laura has gone. The house feels empty. She texts when she arrives in Texas: the trip went well and her heart is full. Although she came for a funeral, she received an unexpected gift: the opportunity to reconnect with old friends.
Her visit sheds blessings on me as well. I’d let some friendships lapse. Yet this is the stage in life when time is my frequent companion. Writing at the keyboard and cutting dead flowers don’t completely fulfill me. I resolve to nurture these renewed friendships. A round from my Girl Scout days comes to mind:
Make new friends, but keep the old;
One is silver, the other gold.

I open my address book and update phone numbers and addresses. Laura and I are now connected by Whatsapp.




Monday, January 2, 2017

Things I Do When I Don't Know What to Do

December twenty-seventh.  The anticipation and excitement of Christmas and New Years are past. So ephemeral. The Christmas tree in the living room looks superfluous and lonely. I feel at loose ends. I want to write but nothing sparks my interest. The only thing that occurs to me is to write down my thoughts as I wander about in this limbo state.
Tendinitis in my right hip has hindered my usual activity for several months. I’m frustrated with not being able to take my frequent walks through the park to the canal and back. This inactivity drives me to eat, dangerous when Christmas cookies and my Scottish shortbread call to me from their tins. The combination of little activity and sweet-gorging is the perfect recipe for an expanding waistline. Each morning I awake with the intention of this being the first of many no-sugar days. But my willpower flags.
            Today I finish the book my son gave me for Christmas, “The Dark Road,” by Mai Jian. It leaves me perplexed. There must be some symbolism or underlying metaphoric threads I just don’t get. The graphic descriptions of how the Chinese suffered under the country’s One Child Family Planning Policy are deeply disturbing. But why can’t the author grant his main characters some peace or grace as their story comes to a close?  I turn to a book of short stories set in Rumania. Again the tale I read leaves me wondering. Not a glimmer of hope for the two main characters and no hint of resolution - a maddening technique of many writers.
            Determined to find meaning in this day, I move to my study. Maybe if I sit in front of the computer and just start writing?
First I reach for the round brass pen and pencil holder on my desk. On the back of a bill I try out each pen. Five are dry. This is my feeble start to my resolution for a less cluttered 2017.
Before I write, I’ll call Ann. We haven’t talked since before Christmas. But her husband says she’s out and won’t be home until late.
I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing about New Years. New Year’s Eve and the prospect of a new year don’t excite me. I can’t relate to the crowds of people cheering, dancing and hugging in the plazas. During this week of amorphous time, I do reflect upon the past year. I enjoy following the television news and newspaper reports summing up the year – the good and the bad.  I’ll leaf through my year’s agenda book to remind my aging memory of events that marked my year: birthdays, doctor appointments, travels. My year has been a good one and I am grateful. As for the upcoming year, I will begin each day as I always do with prayers of thanksgiving and petitions for blessings for my loved ones, along with the determination to say no to sugar and to clean out at least one drawer. In urgent need of downsizing is my collection of tee-shirts.
These unstructured days I enjoy observing bee activity in my garden. Bees have their favorite blooms. The native Llaupangue was the main attraction a few weeks ago. Now they harvest the pollen from the deep purple blossoms of the buddleia or butterfly bush and the dainty white flowers of the ilan-ilan. Such industrious little guys.
I stop to examine my heirloom tomato plants, poking my nose into the leaves. Such a distinctive, pungent scent that evokes visions of red, juicy, savory tomatoes at summer’s end, not those wimpy, tasteless greenhouse specimens we buy at the supermarket.
I welcome birds into our garden; even sprinkling about Christmas cookie crumbs in the grass. But, now, the ripening apricots are the source of contention between me and the austral thrushes. The greedy fellows spear the not-quite-ripe fruits with their pointy beaks knocking them to the ground. I shouldn’t fret about it; there’s plenty for all, including for Speedy, our tortoise.
Today I take time to read some of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings newsletters that have accumulated in my Inbox. The rich essays and book reviews overwhelm with their weighty thoughts. So much to absorb and reflect upon, and I’ll retain very little. But I pick out one small jewel. Hermann Hesse: trees “are the most penetrating of preachers.”
One end-of-the-year pleasure I look forward to is opening my new calendar of Molly Hashimoto’s block prints, portraying peaceful scenes of birds in their natural habitats. I love calendars and the promise they hold for the next year. Each month a different vibrantly-colored feathered friend will greet my days.



The doorbell. I see a figure standing outside our gate and open the door. It’s Ann! We retreat to the back garden with glasses of cold water and samples of my Christmas baking for her to try. Naturally, I have some, too.