Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Herbivore Orgy

Apricots bearing severe symptoms of herbivore gluttony litter our backyard, some attacked while still attached to their respective branches, beacons to marauding austral thrushes. The elegantly groomed plant cutter birds eat at tree level or leftover pickings on the ground. I gather what I can salvage, slightly eaten or ripe enough to harvest. These make great afternoon milkshakes, to which I add whatever other fruit I have on hand. Some cherries are still to be had, while nectarines and peaches are making their round, bright appearance in fruit stands and supermarkets.

Our tortoise, who in the past gorged himself on the fallen apricots, is still not showing interest in food. He and the birds used to make a great environmental team, one dislodging the fruit, while Speedy ate what was left. This year he shows no interest, even trotting right over the fruit I’ve placed in his path. Yesterday we made another trip to the vet’s office. He’s puzzled why Speedy is still not eating, took a blood sample and asked me to get another x-ray done. Meanwhile, we continue to give him three kinds of antibiotics daily. He seems to be getting accustomed to being handled so much now and is allowing us to pet him. If only he could tell us his problem.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Table Talk

Recently, we attended a barbecue hosted by one of hubby’s cyclist friends.  After a couple hours, the meat was finally ready and the men had exhausted the topic of cycling. Seated at the long table, I tried to follow the different strains of lively conversation. In spite of the decades I've lived here, I tend to be quiet at large social gatherings, self-conscious of my accented Spanish. This allows me to listen and observe – and learn, especially when it comes to politics.
Even after forty-one years since the military coup, the circumstances preceding and following the coup continue to be a frequent subject of differing and strong opinions. Last night was no exception as the conversation turned to Chile’s painful past during the Allende government and the military government that followed, now often referred to as the military dictatorship. (Interesting how one different word changes the perception.) What called my attention last night was the increased openness or maybe I should say a softening of the rigid stances of those on the pro-Pinochet, political right which were most of the guests present.  Everyone listened as one guest gave what I thought to be a balanced evaluation of the military government, summing up the good – the establishment of a successful economic program – and the bad – the serious human rights violations. No one disputed his points. Had they moved slightly out of their bastions of denial? Maybe it’s like the climate change deniers, when exposed to increasing and undeniable evidence, they began to listen.
I arrived in Chile a year before the coup so I experienced a before and an after as well as the return to democracy. What I did not experience and which must be factored into any understanding of the past was Chile’s political and social history prior to Allende. With the perspective of hindsight, those at the table may have gained a more objective view of their nation’s recent history, although expressing concern about the socialist direction of the present government, fearing a return to the past. Much of the population is too young to have that advantage of perspective over time while others seem to have forgotten or are easily swayed by clever slogans. And there are others whose pain and anger is so deep that they cannot forgive.
Chileans refer to this on-going struggle of settling differences as reconciliation, a painful process that nations, ethnicities and minorities throughout history have undergone and presently experience wherever violence and war are waged.
How relevant to our world are the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Dry Days

A line of water trickles along the gutter of our sidewalk. I follow it down the street. I can’t identify from which house it came. I do this often – this sleuthing to identify which neighbor is wasting water. I’ve seen a neighbor washing his car on the street with the hose running; gardens being watered mid-day and malfunctioning sprinklers; people hosing off a driveway and sidewalk rather than sweeping. I don’t want to earn the reputation of a busy body with too much time on her hands, so I don’t say, “Do you realize that Chile is in its fifth year of drought? Shouldn’t we be conserving water?”
Few city dwellers consider where our water comes from. We’re too far from its source. Captured from wild rivers, it’s channeled into wide underground tubes and then into smaller pipes to buildings and homes and gardens and golf courses and fountains and pools. Turn on the faucet and out it pours. Or pop a few bottles of water into your shopping cart. So easy. Here in Santiago most people know it comes from some river that flows from the mountains. Fewer think about the dwindling snow melt that feeds the rivers. I imagine that small town residents and farmers are more aware of their dependence upon wells and shrinking reservoirs.

California has suffered three years of drought. In spite of recent rains, it’s too soon to know if this will be year four. In my hometown north of San Francisco drought awareness is high. Public bathrooms display signs reminding the public to conserve water. The low level in nearby water district reservoirs is clearly visible to the frequent hikers and bikers. The severity of drought makes an impact when you can see it. I travelled with my husband two years ago in the fall to Yosemite, his first visit there. I had to describe to him what the valley looked like in a normal year. Not a drop of water in Yosemite Falls.

As a child our camping vacations in the Sierras always involved walks to Indian Springs to fill our canvas water bag. There was no sign indicating the way along the faint trail that passed through a meadow bright with alpine flowers and fragrant with the aroma of wild onions. Up a short slope, those of us who knew could locate the old pipe through which poured delicious, sweet, cool, crystalline water. I want my grandchildren and every child to have the experience of seeing where water comes from and hearing the tapping of rain on the roof.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Light Touch

As I walk the long beach under a patchy morning fog my senses are open, alert, receptive– to the rhythmic plunging of the waves, the wind’s feather touch on my face, the scent of the salty sea. And yes! There are the Franklin Gulls recently arrived from their journey from the Northern Hemisphere in their black and white summer plumage. They surge up to then dart into the shallows plucking morsels to their liking. They likely worked up a hearty appetite on their migration south.  Sharing the shoreline with the gulls are several brown curlews that take off and cry in alarm when I get too close. A pair of black and white, orange-beaked oyster catchers mingles with the shoreline avian gathering.
This beach has few shells or pebbles for the beachcomber. Clumps of tangled brown seaweed are strewn about, like abandoned tresses of sea sirens. What I notice are the interweaving prints in the sand: the deep tread marks of an outlaw jeep, imprints from shoe soles, dog paw prints and the faint, dainty three-toed patterns of the shorebirds.
While residing in northern climes, Franklin Gulls construct their floating aquatic nests from vegetal materials on hand, while their diet helps reduce the population of pesky insects, garbage and mice. These handsome, agile fellows molt twice a year. Two outfits a year. How lightly they tread on this earth.

Back in the capital, my attention switches from seagulls to a tortoise, our pet, Speedy Gonzalez. Out of hibernation for more than a month, he’s not his usual tortoise self: eating very little and squeezing into small places between flower pots to sleep. I take him in a box to see a vet specialist in exotic animals. He paces around the box looking for escape.
Dr. Harrison informs me that Speedy is a chilensis something-or-another and weighs a kilo and a half. How old is he, asks the doc. Well, we bought him about thirty years ago, a present for my son’s sixth birthday, I say. The vet examines Speedy’s shell and checks inside his mouth. He suspects a respiratory problem but needs an x-ray to make a definite diagnosis. A turtle x-ray? The only vet hospital with the required x-ray machine is in a nether world south of downtown, somewhere I've never been. Great. Meanwhile, we must start him on antibiotics. The doc demonstrates how to administer the drops to Speedy, holding onto his neck and prying open his mouth. OK. I can do that.
It was clearly a two person job, so I ask our cleaning lady to help. “I’ll grab his neck and pry open his mouth and you drop in the medicine.” Every time I attempt to grab his head/neck, he whisks back into his shell. Finally, after a tug-of-war between Speedy and me, I manage to pry open his tiny jaw and the drops are delivered. I call the doc. “This is a real struggle.”
“Try relaxing him, petting him.” A gentler touch is needed.
The next day I lift Speedy onto my lap, talk to him and tickle his back legs. My lap is not where he wants to be and in his efforts to escape, out comes his head and neck. Quick as a flash, I grasp his soft squiggly neck skin. He resists. I insist, sticking the finger nail of my other hand into his jaw.
From what I can understand from the x-ray report, Speedy has a cold. Now, after several days, he and I have gotten the knack of this medical ordeal. Though he has the strength of an ox, he is a gentle creature and has earned my respect. Like the Franklin Gull, he treads this earth lightly.
Today I saw him eating grass. Good boy, Speedy!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wake-Up Calls

An explosion of purple sways outside my window – our jacaranda tree. Tiny goblet-shaped blooms blanket the ground below. Some call them “messy”, but why not just enjoy the burst of color while it lasts? It’s a matter of perspective and choice. Choose to notice the wonder of these fleeting purple weeks – or focus on the work required to sweep away those fading velvet petals.

The hot days have descended upon us, the hills now singed brown, and the local supermarket bulges with gaudy, Chinese-made Christmas wreaths, snowmen, reindeer, Santas, elves and plastic trees. This in-your-face inducement to buy and consume, this blaring excess, sickens me.
Late yesterday afternoon we went to a wedding, much like the many we've attended here over the years. The four hundred and fifty plus guests filled the old San Francisco Church, a historic national monument, situated on the Alameda, the main downtown thoroughfare. In this wedding of Chile’s upper echelon, I was distracted from my examination of the church’s old stonework by the young ladies in the row in front of us, dressed in black miniskirts and shorts, and teetering on spindly-heeled, platform shoes. One tugged during the whole ceremony at her very tight stretch miniskirt which insisted on creeping up over her ample bottom. The choir sang the same familiar hymns while women patted at their salon-coifed hairdos and looked about for familiar faces. A few passersby straggled in from the street to view the famous church, wandering along the side naves.
 Pedestrians in their worn clothes stood and stared as the elegant crowd emerged from the church into the late afternoon sun. I wondered how we must have looked to them, we, the beautiful people, the privileged, laughing and talking, as we made our way down the cobble-stoned street to the reception where a banquet awaited us. Perhaps I’m judging harshly this gathering, among whom are friends of ours, but the contrast between the crowd, dressed impeccably in black and shimmering wedding attire, and the sidewalk onlookers suddenly struck me.

The city’s metro jumbles up the population like a giant cement mixer, producing
a rich, enforced diversity. A massive breakdown in the metro’s electric system last Friday morning disrupted the city’s inhabitants’ normal routine, forcing them to look for alternatives – walk with the masses, grab or share a taxi, squeeze into a bulging bus – creating an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together.” 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Return to Paradise

Back to my Tarweed Spirit after a month’s absence. Contemplating my California sojourn, all I can say is --  my cup runneth over. Immersed in the Ultimate Information Society, I became a sponge, soaking up the abundance of ideas and opportunities, stimulated, energized.

Things I noticed:
Americans shaking hands when meeting for the first time! So accustomed to the Chilean kissing society, hand shaking feeling stiff and formal.
The sex change process now being referred to as gender reassignment.
Baseball becoming exciting, especially if the San Francisco Giants are playing (and winning) the World Series.
Frisky squirrels, noisy blue jays and shiny, coal-black crows harvesting the abundant acorns.
A guitarist playing for money by the line for the cable car sporting a tee shirt with the slogan: Legalize gay marijuana. Love it!
The neighbor’s goats, Buff and Sunny, crunching on dry magnolia leaves as if they were potato chips. Petting the goats leaving the scent of goat cheese on my hands all day.
 The habitats of vegetation in the Fairfax hills varying according to their orientation: pungent redwood, madrone, bay and dry grass each marking their territory with their distinctive scent.

Euphoric moments:
Longing to soar like the gulls while viewing the resplendent Pacific Ocean from the Muir Beach Lookout on a clear day.

On the trail detecting the scent of tarweed and realizing I was standing in a field of tarweed, their tiny yellow flowers winking in the sunlight.

A flying sensation filling me as I crossed a bridge over the San Francisco Bay. From its silken surface, tiny, sun-struck wavelets sparkling like stars fallen from the heavens.
Laughing and at ease with old classmates.

Staring down a coyote over a farm fence and admiring his bushy tail.
Antlered deer crossing the road before our car headlights in the black night.
Hearing a childhood playmate relate the story of our adventurous ride down my steep road on our red scooters, a ride which ended in screams and crashes upon encountering a long snake in our path.
Becoming addicted to chocolate chip cookies.
Discovering The Little Free Library on Sycamore Avenue.

Realizing I’m still capable of reaching the top of Mt. Tamalpais.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Cookie Monster

Yesterday I got fired up to make chocolate chip cookies for the grandchildren coming tomorrow. My interest in cooking and, especially baking, has waned over the years, so it had been a while since I’d made cookies. The recipe on the back of the Hershey’s chocolate chip bag sounded simple enough. No sifting flour, no greasing cookie sheets.
I watched in discouragement through the oven door window as the little spoonfuls of dough spread out, looking like miniature pancakes, and waited for the tell-tale brown tone that the cookies were done.
Once out of the oven, the cookies were to cool slightly before I was to remove them to wire racks. I tried to slide the spatula under the first cookie, meeting with puzzling resistance. The oddly-shaped cookies clung to the pan, like barnacles to a rock. I scraped and pushed finally loosening the first batch of misshapen, ragged-edged cookies. I nibbled at broken pieces and then began eating the smaller, more imperfect ones. Switching batch after batch from the wire racks onto plates, I weeded out and devoured the undesirables while also discovering a fine collection of crumbs under the racks. During this process, I noticed that the chocolate chips had sunk to the bottom of each cookie. No bottom layer of dough.

How could I admit to my grandchildren that their grandmother had failed at what had seemed a simple, no-fail recipe? I hope they’ll find the cookies yummy anyway. I know I did.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The first of October. A new month means I get to turn a page on my wall calendar. What scene awaits me? Aah- a watercolor depicting Half Dome and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley in soft brushstrokes of blues, greens, grays and yellows. A soothing painting that matches this warm spring day. So warm that I decided to bring Speedy Gonzalez, our tortoise, out of his hibernation box in the shed. He looks a little stunned, head down in the grass, eyes closed. In past years, I learned he needs time to adapt and rev up his metabolic engines. At first, I must coax him to eat a ripe banana. Soon he’ll find his own snacks around the garden, munching on leaves and the grass.
One of the delights of spring is simply strolling about my small city garden, noticing which flowers are about to bloom. The snowball bush is laden with pale green, soon-to-turn-white balls. The buttery-yellow irises are flowering. Neighbors’ wisterias perfume our block. I breathe in deeply the heady, intoxicating scent.
I am grateful to have time to notice these small sparkles all around. I've learned to slow down and pay attention. Yesterday I went to a crafts village to buy a few gifts to take with me to California. In a ceramics display window I discovered this scene which made me chuckle out loud.

I sent the photo to my hubby and sons. The New Yorker son messaged me: “Is this about the guy making out with the girl on the floor or about the cat sleeping on them?”
“Take your pick,” I wrote back.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fickle Spring

A drizzly, grey second day of spring. I've just come from Pilates class, followed by half-an-hour of stationary bike at the gym around the corner (trying to work off my caloric intake over the long weekend). I was the only one at the gym aside from Yolanda, the woman who sits at a desk all day checking in customers while she knits or does crossword puzzles. I watched a Tom Hanks movie with no sound or subtitles while I cycled and tried to ignore the blaring music and ads on the gym radio. Back to city reality.
The days were warmish and pleasant at the coast. It took me a while to quiet my mind and listen to the sound of the waves just below our apartment, a gentle lapping on this large bay. I couldn’t wait to get out! While hubby jogged, I walked along the road bordering the shore to an area with large rocks and crashing breakers. On the other side of the road I was faced with “ocean view” apartment towers built on what were once sloping dunes.
I kept my eyes focused on the ever-moving teal blue sea and foamy breakers, watching for wildlife. A plethora of gliding pelicans (their open beaks reminded me of Edward Scissor-Hands) and raucous seagulls whose chest feathers were the absolute essence of white. Then…I spotted a species of bird I’d never seen before and pulled out my binoculars. It was spectacular. Excited, I waited for hubby to run by to show him, regretting our field guide was back in the city. Only back home did I learn its name: Inca tern.

Along the road, I stopped to photograph an “animita”, a small shrine built in memory of someone who died here. Chilean roadsides are populated by these shrines, bedecked with flowers (plastic and live) and inscriptions. I regretted later that I didn't photograph the stand offering bundles of seaweed for sale, a traditional ingredient for stews.

After at least a year without an ocean visit, I was on a wildlife roll, spotting two sea otters, my first sighting in that populated stretch of coastline. On my return, I walked briskly, on a high, breathing in the sea air as it brushed my face. That was what I had come for.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September in the Air

September is my favorite month here, filled with hope and promises. My camellias, azaleas and freesias are bursting forth, tender leaves budding and Chilean flags blooming. Next week is Independence Week; supermarkets are gaily decorated with red, white and blue buntings, while the catchy rhythms of the cueca have me humming along. The 17th and the 18th, the official holidays, fall on Thursday and Friday, making a welcome long weekend. At least half of the city’s inhabitants will head out of town, including hubby and me. We’ve been lent an apartment at the coast, which has me excited as I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the sea here. There’s one big drawback though – everyone else will be headed that way as well. I try not to think about the snaking lines of traffic we’ll face along the narrow coast road.
I look forward to long walks on the cliff bordering the breakers, the tangy sea air and sightings of gliding lines of pelicans. I hope I can convince hubby to brave the traffic to go to Valparaiso, whose narrow lanes lined with bright murals, hilly stairways and creaking funiculars promise surprise and creative inspiration. Maybe we can stop at the Dissidents’ Cemetery where I want to search for Scottish immigrant ancestors.

 After grey winter months spent mostly at the computer, I need a change of scene to stimulate my creative juices. What better place than the ocean and Valparaiso? I’ll take a notebook along.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Boxed In

When I park in an underground parking garage in Chile, I curse the architect. The design is anything but user-friendly. The curving ramps between floors are too narrow to make it in one try, and concrete pillars sneak up on me scraping my car door or giving my side-view mirror a good whack. But when I step up to a window to validate my ticket, my inner rants lose importance.
            From a chill subterranean cubicle, a woman receives my money and hands me the ticket. Is she satisfied with this job, sitting all day in a sterile concrete box with no natural light? Does she get bored or is she just thankful to have an income, pitiful as it may be? Perhaps, I think, she never aspired to anything more. Maybe she’s dreaming of buying a new refrigerator.

A woman in a bright orange uniform and cap, pushing a garbage can on wheels, sweeps the street in front of my house, removing the last of the fall and winter leaves. I smile and nod but feel embarrassed that she is sweeping my street, wondering how she feels cleaning the neighborhoods of the upper echelons in a government make-work job. When she finishes her shift, she’ll wait in line for a bus and arrive to her modest house at dark to wash and clean and prepare dinner for her family.
A few days ago I heard the music of an organ grinder floating down the street. Rather than a monkey like organ grinders of old, he travels with a small green parrot in a rustic wooden cage. His cart sports gaily colored balloons and whirly-gigs. No children came out to see him. Maybe he had more luck at the local park.
            Along our street I often hear the gravelly call of the broom vendor and the distinctive whistle of a knife sharpener. On a nearby corner a man changes the cane on wooden chairs.
            What is the job satisfaction of these people? Or is that a luxury they’ve never considered? If given the choice, I’d be an organ grinder: the promise of contact with children, out-of-doors, flexible hours and freedom to go wherever the road takes me. Deep in the parking garage box, I’d wither and die, a sunflower in a sunless world.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bullets or Blossoms?

It seemed like just overnight that the first timid white blossoms made their appearance on our old apricot tree. I must remember to look at them every day for their beauty is fleeting. Already the pink cherry tree blossoms are fading. Is their ephemeral nature that makes them so precious?
My attention is drawn away from blossoms to the war scenes on the news. While I’m taking pleasure in the signs of spring, on another continent thousands of refugee families are living in tents on hot, dusty treeless plains; young men are assassinated while I worry about what to serve for dinner; mothers lose sons while I’m just a phone call away from mine. I want to rant in anger at someone, at those responsible. I feel so helpless.
One of our nine-year-old twin granddaughters, while visiting us, happened to see scenes of people huddled in the bombed-out rubble that was once their home. What I remember was her comment asked so innocently: “How can they live like that?” She wanted to know who was fighting and why. Technology brings atrocities into our living rooms and we must find ways to answer children’s questions, answers that we ourselves don’t have.
My husband and I watch the news of racial riots in the States. Since I have not lived in the States for decades, it’s difficult for me to understand the events: fires, shooting, teargas, looting and destruction, some instigated by outsider vandals. “Just like here,” I said to my husband: student protests that begin peacefully and deteriorate into violence at the hands of hooded and masked disfranchised youth.

Anyone up for a giant WORLD MARCH FOR PEACE? 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

California Dreamin’

Hints of spring are in the air, though officially it arrives in another six weeks here in the Southern Hemisphere: yellow acacias blooms perfume the air, the cherry trees are donning their pink party dresses and birds are already checking nesting sites. We recently found a plump robin’s nest left from last year. I saved it for a while just for the pleasure of looking at it. Today I was about to toss it into the garbage when I thought: Wait a minute. Maybe the robins would like to recycle these perfectly preserved materials for building this year’s first nest. It would save a lot of scavenging. I placed the nest in the garden. If the robins aren't interested, it will make good compost
Jack Frost is still with us though. A few days ago we had a very cold rain. When it cleared, the Andes glowed brilliant in their fresh mantle of snow, and now rooftops in the mornings are white with frost.

At the supermarket, I gave into temptation. Weary of winter fruit, I bought some very pricy and delicious California grapes. Although a firm believer in buying locally, I have difficulty resisting California off-season fruit. Another time, I bought two peaches just for the exceptional pleasure of savoring their sweetness in the middle of winter.

The first bloom just appeared on the one California poppy I have in my garden. They winter over easily here and often bloom through the winter if in a sunny location. I’ll sow more poppy seeds soon, in hopes of having more luck than last year. The introduced poppies do best in wild, neglected terrain rather than a tended garden. Their preferred habitat in Chile is along railroad tracks.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

La Llorona

Entertaining my three granddaughters when they come to our house doesn't require much imagination or effort. What we mainly do is Play. Among their favorite past times are drawing, playing house and racing the Matchbox cars that belonged to their dad. We've
also invented a few games that they never tire of.
There’s “Monsters and Animals” which involves pushing, shoving and tickling on top of their grandparents’ bed.
            “I’m an alligator with sharp teeth.”
            “I’m a hippo with a huge mouth.”
            “And I’m a lion with sharp claws.”
And we roll and tickle and shove and laugh until grandmother calls time out for a rest.
Another all time favorite is our version of Jack and the Beanstalk. They call the game “Fee-fi-fo-fu.” I, the giant, stomp around the house hunting for them in their hiding places, while I growl, “Fee-fi-fo-fum.” Their giggling usually gives them away, followed by screams when I find them and threaten to take out a bite of a plump arm or leg.
Last week, we played a Latin American version. We had just watched a Mexican movie, “La Llorona,” based on a legend of Maria, whose children had drowned. Destined to haunt the villages at night in a shroud, wailing for her lost children, she kidnaps village children. I learned of the legend years ago in California and heard the song “La Llorona” on Mexican radio stations. But my Chilean husband had never heard of it.
Throwing a large dark blue shawl over my head, I announced to the girls, “Soy la Llorona. I’m the Llorona”. With hysterical screams, they ran off to find hiding places. I wailed throughout the house, discovering their curled up bodies in dark closet corners, behind armchairs and, finally, under their grandfather’s office desk, with him trying to put on an innocent face.

The child in me loves to play and laugh. I wonder, when the girls are grown, if they’ll remember playing La Llorona with their grandmother.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Things to Do on a Rainy Day

A cold, grey, rainy day is best spent indoors. Right? After going to the gym and doing a couple of errands, I closed myself in and settled into the recliner in my study, thinking about all the postponed household chores I could be doing: sorting the piles of papers in my study, cleaning my sweater drawer where a moth nibbled a hole in my favorite green sweater, reducing the old emails in my Inbox, removing rug stains.  But, instead, I snuggled down to continue reading “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham, a book of my mother’s that had gathered a film of dust on my bookshelf. Now I can't put it down. I read with pencil in hand, underlining poetic phrases and metaphors. As a struggling writer, I get discouraged though. She writes so magnificently. Doubts about the quality of my writing haunt me as I prepare to publish my memoir. My consolation is a quote from Ernest Hemingway upon reading Markham’s book: …”she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…. But she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”

            Writers confess to myriads of self-doubts, so maybe what I'm feeling is normal. All I can do is to keep on writing – and reading. I’ll glean what I can from Beryl Markham’s magic with words.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Finding My Way

It’s raining hard. Very hard. A welcome sight and sound in this drought-ridden latitude when I've wondered if I'd ever hear that rushing roar again. The greens in my garden contrast brightly against the grey of the day. Water swirls along the street gutters.
This morning hubby greeted me with, “Happy 14th of July.” It was his way of acknowledging that I arrived in Chile into his waiting arms on this date forty-two years ago, unaware that I'd be spending the rest of my adult life here. Sometimes he has thanked me for my “sacrifice.” At that young age I didn't think of it as a sacrifice. I was naïve and in love. It’s been quite a journey, often a rocky road, challenging and prompting me to explore interior pathways of self-understanding. Lately, I've been reading old letters: correspondence between me and my parents and from hubby to me before I joined him here in his country. They allow me to step lightly back in time to facilitate my efforts to write an honest memoir, working title: Marrying Santiago. I started writing it over ten years ago, but now I believe it’s as ready as it will ever be, though I have so many doubts about putting it out there for other eyes. Is it well-written? Will someone find it of interest?

To me it’s worth it if even one soul finds comfort, understanding or joy in my words, if she can say, “Oh, I know that feeling so well.” And writing it was something I had to do for myself.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Rain on My Parade

It’s the Fourth of July. I picture friends in the States enjoying picnics, town parades and fireworks, while here the scene from my window is dull and grey. Rain is predicted. On the street, people are bundled in coats and woolen scarves, dogs sport capes and wild canaries sing in the treetops as they peck at seed pods. Winter is definitely here, and I work to avoid the doldrums. On these cold, dreary days, I have the unfortunate habit of nibbling on cookies and nuts as I alternate my activities between writing and reading.
I've just begun reading “The Luminaries”, a novel of over eight hundred pages, which I hope will keep me entertained for several weeks. Everyday I scan the newspaper for announcements of concerts and exhibits in order to avoid wintertime stagnation of the mind and spirit. Last week I went downtown alone to view the four-hour-long documentary "At Berkeley." Familiar, beloved campus landscapes triggered nostalgia. The focus of the film - how a public institution can maintain its high standards with decreasing state financial support and, yet, keep tuition rates down - was highly relevant to the attempts at the controversial educational reform here in Chile.
 A few days ago my friend Liliana and I boarded the metro to downtown. The mix of passengers in the metro immediately fuels the creative juices, while downtown Santiago is another world, call it the real world, when compared to our neck of the woods. At the magnificent Museo de Bellas Artes we viewed an exhibit of the Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain. Each of his black and white photographs captures a precise visual moment in time that will never be repeated. His work highlights the great importance of paying attention, particularly to the little things. Feet seemed to hold a special attraction for him, and I understand how they convey emotion, yet are open to the interpretation of the observer. His series depicting the street children of Santiago is disturbing and thought-provoking.

Hubby is off with a group of friends to watch the two World Cup matches. Colombia is playing Brazil at the moment and I will soon go watch the match. Having lived in Colombia for two years, you can imagine where my loyalties lie. I have the television tuned to the game and just heard “GOOOOOOL!” Brazil 1- Colombia 0. Come on Colombia, light your fires!
Oh.Oh.Now it's 2-0.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Football Days

Chileans’ patriotism has been at its peak these past weeks of the World Cup, fans following, cheering and suffering for “La Roja”, the country’s national team. (Roja for their red jerseys.) The team sadly lost today’s match with five-time world champion Brazil, but just by a hair, specifically by one overtime penalty kick. La Roja played valiantly.
Besides their great playing, most impressive was the singing of Chile’s national anthem at the start of each game. The Chilean players and the fans sang their hearts out in their first two matches. Today became a virtual competition of national anthems, the yellow-shirted Brazilian fans attempting to outdo the previous Chilean performances.
The days of the games all hearts in this small country beat as one, each goal celebrated with cheers, whistles, shouts and horns honking in every neighborhood. It is times like this when I identify closely with my adopted country. I sense what it feels to be Chilean.
The local media has brain-washed me, not usually a fan of soccer. I now know the names and nicknames of the most outstanding players along with their identifying haircuts and tattoos. The television cameras took me into their modest homes, interviewing family members, next door neighbors and former school friends.

Soon the news will return to its usual menu of student protests, strikes and political wrangling, while newspapers advertise the latest model imported cars and packages to the Caribbean in full page ads. Is it only sports and earthquakes that are capable of unifying this country? Consumerism and political ideologies leave little space for the growth of civic mindedness.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Soup Days

June 21st marked the winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere. A look up at the grey sky and my cold hands confirm the fact. On the positive side, our shortest day and longest night of the year are now behind us. Cold days are a time to turn inwards… to reading (finally finished Cien Años de Soledad), tweaking and organizing my writing and watching the World Cup on television.

While nibbling on a chocolate bar, I observe the birds foraging for seeds outside. The liquidambar next door, its branches bereft of its burgundy leaves, is laden with round prickly seed pods – a tasty bird banquet. First arrive the gregarious green parrots, which in their gluttonous fever, knock the pods to the ground. Then, the doves take over, waddling and pecking at the perilous pods. Returning from my Pilates class this morning, I stepped carefully through the mass of lethal-looking pods on the sidewalk.
Yesterday, arriving to the house, we saw a band of doves dining below the tree, closely watched by a crouching grey cat, its body flattened below the curb. Seeing that the doves were oblivious to the lurking feline threat, I jumped out of the car.
My hubby said, “Wait. Let’s see what happens.”
“No! It’ll catch one!” Doves are slow movers and no match for a cat. I wasn't willing to let nature take its course. Besides, the cat looked well-fed. I think it was Señora Teresa’s cat. She feeds her pets too well. Besides her very fat cat, she has a fox terrier that resembles a large sausage about to burst.
This morning I spotted a fluffy white cat drinking water from our bird bath! Not very clean water as the robins are frequent bathers there. I wonder if the cat noticed the scent of birds. Will the birds pick up the smell of cat? I’m curious and Google for information. Just as I thought, except for some specific species, birds’ sense of smell is the least developed of their senses, thus facilitating the hunt of the hungry cat.

I feel justified interfering with nature yesterday, defending the doves from the cat menace.

Friday, June 13, 2014


While stalled in heavy traffic, I noticed a vendor on the corner selling Chilean flags. The passengers in the car ahead bought two. Football (i.e. soccer) fever is upon us. In a few hours the Chilean national team plays their first game (against Australia) in the World Cup in Brazil. The entire country is holding its breath. Hubby is going to a friend’s house to watch the game with the guys. It’s not much fun watching a game alone, so I’ll head to my sister- and brother-in-law’s down the street to watch with them. Soccer has never excited me, being an American football fan, but championship games are more riveting, so I’ll be there rooting for Chile.

Although football has filled entire TV news hours and newspapers for the past few weeks, another item of news comes in a close second. RAIN! Two storms, last week and this week brought us a wonderful, wet gift from the clouds. The city is ringed with snow-covered mountains. The newly-washed city trees and my garden plants have recovered their intense colors, and I smile in gratitude and relief.

Rain was predicted for last Wednesday, also the day our gardener was due. I prayed the rain would hold off till he could finish. While he trimmed bushes and turned the soil, I joined him, scattering fertilizer and manure, already picturing the lush green growth of spring. We finished as the first drops fell.

In a previous post, I praised New York’s community gardens. There is a slow-growing movement here to plant sidewalk vegetable gardens. One determined soul has carved out a vegetable garden in the median strip park of a major thoroughfare in our neighborhood. The city needs more people like him.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Culinary Solitary Confinement

Michael Pollan in his article “Why Cook?” discusses the undeniable trend that Americans are cooking less and buying more prepared meals, freeing housewives from kitchen slavery in order to go out to produce in the work place. I heartily agree with his arguments on the importance of the shared family meal and the power of cooking to transform us from mere consumers into producers.
            I learned to cook from my mother and, later, living on my own, I expanded my culinary skills. Arriving here in Chile, I discovered that most people had maids do their cooking. At first, we hired a daily maid, but after the birth of my second son, I reluctantly gave in to my husband’s pressure to hire a live-in maid. I did the grocery shopping and planned the meals, but the maid did the major cooking. I returned to full time teaching.
            By the time I retired, I’d lost interest in cooking, or, to be honest, I’d become lazy, accustomed to having Carola, our sweet-tempered, part time maid, do it for me. Now multiple other activities vie for my time: gardening, reading, writing, anything that frees me from that kitchen isolation. Because that’s one factor Michael Pollan didn’t take into consideration: the size of the kitchen and its location in the house plan. Most kitchens around the world were not designed as places of social gathering. Chilean kitchens, even in new, modern apartments, are the size of a closet and separated from the other living areas by doors (because originally that was the exclusive domain of the maids). The kitchen in our fifty- year- old house is long and narrow, though the addition of a small breakfast nook by the previous owners makes it more inviting. But, it has doors that cut me off from the activity in the rest of the house when I’m doing last minute preparations and serving meals in the evenings and on weekends. Once kids were older or gone altogether, the kitchen became an even lonelier place. Hubby has zero interest in cooking and only descends from his second floor office when I call out, “Dinner’s ready!”
            As the supply of women willing to work as maids declines, Cocinas americanas, American kitchens, meaning the kitchen is incorporated into the sitting or dining room, is now a big selling point for many new homes here. I’ve fantasized sledge-hammering the wall separating my kitchen from our den, but it would be a giant mess (and where would I put the cabinets from that wall?). The kitchen in my childhood home had a sunny breakfast nook incorporated and, while washing the dishes, we faced a large window that looked out onto a grand old oak. For the past twenty-five years, the wall of our next door neighbors’ has been my kitchen sink view.

 No wonder I’d rather be in the garden.

Monday, June 2, 2014

My New York State of Mind: Snapshots

GREEN: All around. Spring foliage shouting overpowering green-ness, a refreshing sight to these sore eyes coming from a grey and brown drought-ridden city.

Commencement at Columbia University: a vast sea of euphoria among powder blue-clad graduates and proud family members, few dry eyes among us. The speeches encouraging graduates to go forth and make this world a better place spoke to all present. I felt a graduate once more, eager to do grand things with my days. (In October I’ll be attending my 50th reunion of my Berkeley class!)

Metromania: Descending the stairs into the mouth of the monster, the pervasive odor of metal, humidity, rotting garbage and urine and the rhythmic clackety-clackety-clack invade my senses. Read the signs, find the blue line, the R car, “stand clear of the closing doors”, scramble out to find the red line, up the stairs, cross the hallway, down the uptown stairs to the opposite platform, wait for the number 2 express and watch for rats scouring the tracks, then transfer at Times Square to the yellow line, get off at 14th Street, find the southwest exit. Uptown, downtown, across town, our days are constant movement. At night faint rumblings from that subterranean world ease us into sleep in our basement apartment.

Grand Central Station at six p.m.: a maze of humanity, a swarming anthill, crisscrossing, colliding, hurrying-hurrying and, in the midst, bewildered me searching for a U.S. mailbox.

Garbage: Shocking and discouraging was the sight of the mountains of non recyclable garbage produced at The Shake Shack where we dined in Grand Central’s food court. Add to that the garbage from the thousands of fast food enterprises and one wonders if home recycling can ever make a difference.

Parks: Central and Riverside Parks and community gardens are green, leafy gems inserted throughout the city providing respite to us, the birds and the squirrels. We spot blue jays, robin redbreasts and bright cardinals who treat us to their song – a walk in the woods – in the city.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


I wrote this several weeks ago, but lacked time to post it.

Today is International Recycling Day according to our local newspaper, which included a special supplement on the subject. (Also included were heavy glossy magazines from department stores and a travel agency, one dedicated entirely to SWEATERS, and another to the latest in giant TVs, promising the same sensation as actually BEING at the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.)
I took a big load today to our local recycling center, not because it’s International Recycling Day. I’m just tying up loose ends before we travel to New York tomorrow. I expected a line at the recycling center, but I was the only one there.
Preparing for a trip does weird things to my head. I feel the need to put order in my life and our house, rather like emptying an Inbox labeled “Life”. I cleaned up a pile of papers in my study – drafts and rewrites and more rewrites – which gave me a light, uncluttered feeling. I checked the garden for any urgent last minute snipping or spraying, responded to all the pending emails and deleted all the spam (over one hundred!), and bought boxes of pills to cover my medical needs for two weeks. I’ll sort them into bags marked “a.m.” “p.m.” and “other”.  
Next on my list is choosing a lightweight paperback to read on the plane. I’ve only read half of Cien Años de Soledad but this deluxe edition is way too heavy for travel. I do worry that, when I return, I will have totally forgotten who is who among all the Aurelios and the Arcadios.
I could spend hours at the Strand bookstore in New York. But there’s never enough time to browse and then there’s the tough decision of narrowing down my choices to what will fit in my suitcase.

“Narrowing down” is a must when traveling. And in life. What do I need? What are the essentials? For this trip? For my life? I feel a certain anxiety about leaving home, because it involves some uprooting, if only temporary. To travel I must leave behind the known and the comfortable while also I go forth to the novel, the stimulating and eye-opening unknown. I am ready for that. Long stretches of time in the same routine in this city stultify me.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

                                             A Rant and a Laugh

Still no rain. The weather predictions for the next week: sunny. I miss the sound of falling rain on the roof, vegetation and stone, the plunk-plunk in the rain spouts. I yearn for the smell of wetness – wet leaves. It’s been so long, these feel only like childhood memories. The air is saturated with smog, vegetation layered with soot. Yesterday, out walking on the city streets, doing my errands, the golden fall colors helped dissipate my negative thoughts. I don’t like living my day with a black cloud lurking over me. But beside a fallen yellow leaf there was a candy wrapper, a coke can, and further along cigarette butts. I once read that litter attracts litter. My observations tell me this is true. Bits of trash litter a weed-ridden, unkempt corner yard two blocks away. People think it’s acceptable to toss a crumpled paper there. I take that back – I doubt they think, which gets me thinking about recycling and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I Googled the phenomenon which is also known as a gyre and the Great Pacific Trash Vortex. It’s all about PLASTIC. 
Grocery shopping takes me longer now as, glasses perched on my nose, I examine the underside of containers. Does the tiny triangle hold a number 1, followed by the letters PET? If not, back on the shelf it goes. But I often have no choice. If I want to eat yoghurt or buy household cleaning products, I must sin against planet Earth. How I’d like to have an interview with the CEO of Johnson and Johnson and give him an earful.
This lack of rain and the thought of all that accumulating plastic on land and sea frustrate me. I feel powerless, even though I sign every green petition that appears in my Inbox, refuse a plastic bag for my box of aspirin at the pharmacy and take my own cloth bags to the supermarket, while all around me customers file by with carts filled with plastic bags.
Experts here say there’s a good chance La Niña will bring us rain this winter. I’ll believe it when I see it, hear it and smell it.
Now that I’ve had a good rant, I’ll admit that, arriving home yesterday, the trilling of the hummingbirds at the feeder in our backyard cheered me up. Then I sat down to watch an entire hour of “The Big Bang Theory”, which had me laughing out loud. There’s nothing like a good laugh to put things in perspective – for a while.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Rain is predicted. Dark clouds have loomed threateningly today and yesterday, but all we’ve gotten is an occasional teasing drizzle. It hasn’t rained here in 7, 8 or 9 months and this is the fifth consecutive year of drought. I look at the clouds and I make a silent prayer. Please. Rain.  If we could understand the language of the trees and the ground beneath us, I imagine they’re begging for moisture. I’m certain my redwood tree is.

Strong erratic gusts of wind knocked over our small ilán-ilán (Aloysia) tree in the backyard. It was top heavy with branches tipped with wonderfully fragrant white, lacy flowers, abuzz with a multitude of honey bees. Cutting off all the branches in order to lift the tree into an upright position, I saved the flowers to put in a jug in the house. The bees clung to the cut flowers, and I regretted having to deprive them of their source of food. Where will they go now that winter is on its way?