Tuesday, August 25, 2020

                                             In Praise of Redwoods

In these challenging quarantine times, the appearance of pink cherry blossoms, spring’s harbingers, in the park where I walk is a spark of light and hope. Spring is officially a month away here in Chile but the warmer days have encouraged the blossoms to show off their cheery, silken beauty.


That hope helps me bear the tragic news of the wildfires in California, my home state. Most saddening is the news of the devastation of the Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I know the territory well. In the 1950’s for four years I attended Huckleberry Woods, a Girl Scout camp in Big Basin. What a priceless childhood experience to be immersed for two weeks among ancient redwoods! It’s no wonder I became an avid tree-hugger.

And we were truly immersed. Divided into groups according to age, we were assigned to separate areas in the woods. We slept in sleeping bags on the ground, softened by accumulations of fragrant redwood needles. The towering trees were our only roof. We lashed sticks together with twine using our knowledge of knots to construct shelves and hangers for our belongings. There were latrines and cubicles for bucket showers with water we heated in an oil drum over a fire. We took turns with fire duty.


It was inevitable that we’d develop crushes on our counsellors, young women with names like Chipmunk, Otter, Bluejay and Termite. Cottontail was our rather stern nurse. The young male cooks in our outdoor kitchen and dining area were also the objects of our girlish infatuation.


Each chilly morning we’d rise to the call of the bugle and dress in our camp uniform, shorts and a pull-on blouse, called ‘Greenies’ (of course, they were green) and a maroon tie knotted twisted into a unique square -ish knot. We started our day with a flag raising and the National Anthem. After a hot oatmeal breakfast, we’d wash our mess kits in a bucket and head off for a morning activity: straightening our ‘nests’, practicing archery, elaborating crafts, checking a book out of the library installed within a gigantic burned out redwood trunk or washing our clothes in large buckets with washboards and Fels Naptha soap bars. After lunch, we had a rest period for reading or writing letters and later could choose a hike or head for a swim in the chilly water of the natural, fern-lined swimming hole fed by a small waterfall. At the Rock Slide, an open hillside covered with a smooth flat layer of rock, we would stargaze and sing at twilight.


Not a day went by without song, while hiking or sitting on logs around the campfire: Negro spirituals, cowboy ditties and American folk songs. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder…,” or “My home’s in Montana….”  Snuggled into our sleeping bags in the dark, we’d listen for the mournful notes of taps resounding amongst the redwoods and then waited for the serenade. Hidden from view, our counsellors would sing us into slumber. “Desert silvery blue beneath the pale moonlight..,” or “Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander….”

Aside from my memories of Huckleberry Woods, Big Basin holds particular significance for me because my mother attended camp there in the 1930’s, then known as Camp Chaparral. In the photos camp life seems quite like what I experienced, building character and outdoor skills within the magnificence and wisdom of centuries-old redwoods.


Redwoods are known to be fire-resistant. In any redwood forest it is common to come across blackened, flame-licked trunks of a living tree. I pray that Big Basin’s sequoias sempervirens will abide for another millennia to offer their beauty and wisdom to generations to come.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Muffin Days


ENVY. Yes. Full blown envy is what I feel when I contemplate the photos of natural landscapes on Facebook: a woodland trail by friend Allyson’s Toronto home, Scarlett’s miniature roses with a background of rolling California hills, sunset at the ocean by Chile’s coast. In response to a FB post by the Nature Conservancy, dozens send in snapshots of their local woods and lakes.  Such good fortune to live in those places, I think, while I’ve been in quarantine for four months in this city, currently of 8 million. I grew up in a place of great natural beauty and now in these pandemic times I long for the country.
flowering tarweed at Phoenix Lake, Marin Co. California

Connecting to Nature is my salve, my comfort and my delight especially in these hard times, but most of Nature is out of reach for city dwellers for now. What to do? I pay attention: to the deep blue sky dappled with glowing puffs of white clouds, to the carpet of lemon-yellow leaves at the park, to the exhilarating sight of fresh snow on the Andes.
Today, ignoring the strict lockdown, I take a walk to a small nearby park. There I feast my eyes on lemony yellow leaves carpeting the ground. In the distance I can just make out the fresh snow on the Andes. Yes. We’ve had several good long rains after many years of drought. On my walk I pull my mask down below my nose to inhale the tingling sharp scent of wet leaves. 

my local plaza

My walks to the park have become a daily routine. I discovered that walking improves my physical stamina, eases arthritic pain and corrects bad habits formed while being homebound.
From the start of the quarantine, I found that following my usual routine has been beneficial for my mental health. Yet I still have days of feeling down. Early each morning, I have an inner conversation with myself, a sort of pep talk. What do I have to look forward to today? Maybe a son will call by FaceTime so we can visit with grandchildren. (Family hugs are what I miss most.) I look forward to the rain forecast for tonight. I don’t know why but I get satisfaction from sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor. Unfortunately for my waistline, meals have become bright spots in my days. Both my husband and I have been resorting to comfort food, especially chocolate. But then I had a stern talk with myself to be more disciplined regarding food. Now, if I need comforting I turn to an absorbing book. Comfort reading rather than comfort eating.
 This is an ideal time to develop greater self-control and patience. Each week that the government extends the total quarantine for another week, I’m able to adjust. Another week. Another month. I know it will end eventually, yet as a ‘senior’, I hold a very different perspective of the terms ‘eventually’ and ‘future’ than do the younger generations. It helps me to imagine the immense joy I’ll feel when I can have family over for Sunday lunch or make an outing into the countryside or make that long-awaited trip to Scotland.

While I make herb-cheese muffins and order online groceries to be delivered, neighbors at the other end of town are organizing soup kitchens. They’re plugging up the leaks in their fragile homes, built of cardboard, sheets of tin and plastic, while I delight in the sight and sound of rain. Families that hunker down in their small crowded spaces, where it’s impossible to practice social distancing, would feel envy and maybe resentment if they were to see my spacious home where now only two of us live and even enjoy the green of our small garden.
Life in these pandemic times puts society under an enormous magnifying glass, highlighting glaring inequalities: inadequate housing, irregular incomes, students with no computers to do online classes and no Wi-Fi connection. Inequalities have always existed, but now on the television screen they are in our faces, headlined in giant red letters, impossible to ignore or forget; the woman attempting to sweep the water and mud from her house; wet mattresses upended (where will the children sleep tonight?); belongings piled high into a dry corner; buckets and pots filling with rain leaks.
The Covid-19 restrictions reveal our true colors. Are we willing to forego today’s satisfactions for the long term common good? Televised scenes of massive pool parties and crowded bars reveal a society of young people unwilling to sacrifice for the well-being of their country.
This quarantine also has made known the positive: public and private campaigns to help the needy; an abundance of time to reflect, to read, to bake muffins, to write, to share humor on social media, to call a sister-in-law who lives alone or to feed the backyard birds.
Today I’ll go online to contribute once more to an organization that distributes food to the needy, although I know it will never be enough.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Happy Anniversary?




My husband’s first words to me this morning. I panicked. Did I forget our anniversary? Wait a minute. What month is this? July. We were married in December. What? I said. July 14th, he answered. Oh. It clicked. Forty-eight years ago I arrived in Chile to pursue our relationship – cut short when his U.S. visa expired the previous October. Our courtship needed more time. Forty-eight years later….I’m still in this beautiful country and mother of two sons and grandmother of five.

Enough time to have witnessed a socialist government, a military coup and dictatorship, the return to democracy, and recently, severe social unrest and… yes, Covid-19 quarantine.

I still have moments of homesickness, ‘home’ meaning San Anselmo, the town where I grew up. Though I no longer have any family there, I miss the dark green curves of Mt. Tamalpais, the peace and fragrance of Phoenix Lake cupped in a fold of the mountain, the scent of redwood trees, the grassy dome of Mt. Baldy, those geographic landmarks of my early years to which I return yearly, except now in 2020 due to the pandemic.

For years I struggled with the question: where is ‘home’ for me? I dealt with my struggles by writing two books: Marrying Santiago and Notes from the Bottom of the World.


Now, after forty-eight years of memories and four months of quarantine, I know that ‘home’ is Santiago, Chile, where my family is – husband, sons, grandkids, nieces, nephews, sisters- and brother-in law. Because of them, this place is ‘home’ for me. Instead of Mt. Tamalpais, I have a view of the magnificent snow-covered Andes.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Ode to the Bay


Sittin' in the mornin' sun
I'll be sittin' when the evenin' comes
Watchin' the ships roll in
Then I watch 'em roll away again

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Watchin' the tide roll away
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
Wastin' time

Otis Redding wrote this favorite song of mine by San Francisco Bay, the Bay of my growing years and beyond, the Bay to which I migrate in early fall, the Bay of my memories.

First, were the sounds. I'd lie in bed at night hearing the haunting calls of the fog horns warning ships passing through the Golden Gate.


When I was five, we moved north of the Bridge, where we undertook many bay outings: China Camp where we'd buy tiny pink bay shrimp from Chinese fishermen. Their old wooden wharves and shacks continue there, preserved as an historic site; Tomales Bay where we'd head in rubber boots with buckets and shovels to dig for clams. I remember my surprise seeing my grandmother eating them raw from the shell. My childhood curiosity was piqued by the purple sea anemones clinging to rocks in the shallow water. If I touched them with a stick, they'd squirt water. Also on Tomales Bay was Shell Beach, where we'd head on hot summer days, carrying folded chairs, beach towels, and a picnic down the steep woodsy trail. I had mixed feelings about Shell Beach. The road to get there was windy and I was prone to carsickness. Once there, I'd have to deal with avoiding the jellyfish lurking in those waters.

My last excursion to Tomales Bay was just a few years ago where I embarked on my first kayaking trip with friends.


I'll skip the details as I wrote about that outing in my book "Notes from the Bottom of the World." As we neared the shore, I could see Nick's Cove in the distance and the thought of its renowned hot clam chowder urged me on for the final challenging leg of the expedition.

When you live by a bay, you acquire tastes for shellfish, not only clams, but shrimp and crab. Those early culinary experiences foreshadowed a life in Chile, whose coastal waters provide an abundance of seafood, my all-time favorite being machas (razor clams) a la parmesana.

I'll bring my bay ode to a close with another song:

Friday, June 12, 2020

Rain, a Fire and a Funeral


RAIN! GLORIOUS, SPLENDOROUS, MARVELOUS RAIN! What a blessing for this parched city. My garden gives thanks; my redwood tells me it’s a happy camper. According to the weatherman, this is most bountiful rain in two years. From a second floor window, I see that the mountains have a fresh cloak of snow. Now, in the afternoon, the sun gleams, drops of water on leaves glisten and the sky is the bluest of blues. So much to be grateful for.
redwood in the rain

                I ran out in the rain to pick up the newspaper this morning and placed it in the oven to disinfect it. Then, with mug of coffee in hand, I joined hubby on the second floor to view on his computer the funeral in England of Betty, his father’s Scottish/Chilean cousin, who passed away at 89-years of age of coronavirus. On her visits here, she entertained us with her wicked humor and feisty character. While watching the service, I noticed the smell of burning paper and rushed downstairs to the kitchen, filled with a thin veil of smoke. I’d forgotten to turn down the temp on the oven since I’d baked chicken yesterday. I pulled out a part of the paper in flames and doused it under the faucet. It was the business section. Oh, well. Hubby warned that I could have burned down the house. I doubt it. I have a very efficient sniffer. The whole house smells of burnt paper.


                The day called for hot butternut squash soup. While it was simmering, I whipped up a batch of granola. Things I do during quarantine, which shows no sign of easing up. And I write (here) and read. Time to download another book. Am thinking of something by John Grisham as I’ve never read any of his books. My sisters-in-law knit during their free quarantine hours: sweaters for newborns and squares to make afghans. One sister-in-law just made a poncho for our year-old granddaughter, Mila. I’ve forgotten how to knit and crochet. I sold my sewing machine years ago and hubby knows he must sew on any of his loose buttons. I’m all thumbs with a needle.
                I think of things that give me pleasure during these lockdown days: the sound of rain, the blue sky, our backyard birds, a clean kitchen floor, unexpected emails, a phone call, a Facetime visit with grandchildren, a good book, chocolate. Surprisingly, the days and weeks fly by.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Feeling Bitchy


This quarantine feels eternal. I succumbed for two days to feeling crotchety and bitchy, angry at the world: my wooly socks that resisted my efforts to yank them onto my feet; the pull up tab on a tin can of tomatoes that refused pulling up. (Hubby’s comment: what will you do when I’m not around); the soup that boiled over in its pan (because I forgot to turn off the flame); my inability to stop snacking; the misguided who don’t respect the quarantine. I won’t go on.
Then, suddenly, I had a great day, reminding me that nothing is forever. What made it great? The shining sun, inviting the fall leaves to show off their golden and ruby colors; a morning email informing me that online magazine Literary Traveler accepted an article I’d submitted (yes!); Radio Beethoven playing Rossini’s overture to the opera Masmetto II, and ALL music, for that matter, now that our only classical music station is back on the air after a lapse of several months, just in time for quarantine. I think ahead to the joy of attending a live concert in the future.
It’s important these days to have things to look forward to. I’ll be relieved to visit the dentist. I’ve had a loose molar since the beginning of quarantine and I’m tired of months of chewing my food on one side of my mouth.
Rain is announced for the next couple of days. I pray that the weather app knows its stuff. How I long to hear the swish of a heavy rain. All the growing things in my garden and the surrounding dull brown hills would give thanks as well.
 How satisfying and comforting the books I’ve read in this time of solitude, (more satisfying than snack food), the last two written by Sue Monk Kidd. Now I’m reading The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell, who describes his solitary walks through the Scottish Highlands. Anything to put me in a Scottish frame of mind as I sit in front of my computer waiting for inspiration on my novel. I wanted to play some Scottish music but the CD player wouldn’t cooperate. I’ll have to try YouTube
            I’ll enjoy preparing for our book club meeting in 10 days, via zoom. I will be the moderator as I suggested this month’s book The Invention of Nature. Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. What an extraordinary, brilliant man Von Humboldt and so unknown. This fascinating book is a must for all nature lovers. I had my son bring me a copy from the States because I wanted to be able to underline and place the volume on my bookshelf among the keepers.


            In this time of contemplation many turn to nature for spiritual sustenance. How fortunate are those who live in the countryside or at the coast, in less developed places. Our city garden is small but I can look out my back window and rest my eyes on the feathery branches of the California redwood tree I brought to Chile as a seedling thirty years ago. It is my forest.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Scotsmen on My Mind


Two-week Coronavirus lockdown again. The entire city of Santiago. If I’m not allowed out, I determine to make good use of my free time (when not cooking, sweeping, ordering groceries on line). So this is the perfect time to pour myself into my writing. Right? My historical novel based on the life of a Scottish great-aunt. It’s actually more research than writing. The research takes me there. As I study the family tree on my computer screen, long dead family members come alive. The past few days I’ve been reading about early 19th century Gibraltar, where my grandmother spent time as a governess for a naval captain’s children. I have a few photographs she took while there which give me inspiration and give flight to my imagination – two small boys in sailor suits, the family with my grandmother,  officers in dress uniform, aa Royal Navy steamship.
What better way to get into a Scottish frame of mind than to immerse myself in the world of the Outlander series? Jamie Fraser is my kind of Scotsman: blue-eyes, red hair, powerful physique and winning accent. Exposed to my Outlander marathon, I just may slip into speaking like a true Scotswoman! After all, it’s in my DNA.
So I deal with quarantine retreating into an imaginary world. Aye, I’ve sighed over Jamie Fraser’s brawny good looks, but it’s difficult to imagine myself with someone that young. By the last episode, I’d changed my loyalties for that tough, gray-bearded rakish Murtagh Fitzgibbons Fraser. Enamored, I check him out on Google. Damn. He’s twenty years younger than I.     
Well, I did marry a Gordon, a Spanish-speaking Chilean, twice removed from Scotland. The only thing Scottish about him is his last name. When I met him, he looked more like Pancho Villa, moustache and all, than Jamie or Murtagh.