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.