Eight Letter Word for Global Virus

A Loggerhead Shrike flew in and flittered about the quail, sparrows, and finches that picked through seeds on the feeders in our orchard. It was the first time I had seen one here at the ranch. It is a small, striking blue-grey bird with a black band across its face like the Lone Ranger’s mask. What makes the shrike interesting and often a topic of conversation in the birding world is that it impales its prey, mainly lizards and small rodents, on cactus and mesquite thorns. It’s not uncommon to see a lizard that has met its demise hanging from barbed wire, a shrike perched in a tree nearby, scolding intruders.

I wanted to know more about the bird and found an online entry on the National Audubon Society site titled, “Shrikes Have an Absolutely Brutal Way of Killing Large Prey”. It struck me that someone writing for an organization that protects birds would use such vilifying language to describe what is the hunting pattern of a bird. I was curious of what other salacious words and phrases the author used to describe this predator of the songbird world and found these: gruesomely impaled, macabre behavior and weaponry. The last paragraph reads, “A headbanging, prey-impaling, death bird”. I thought of an Oscar Wilde quote, “To define is to limit”. The instincts of the Loggerhead Shrike had suffered at the hands of a writer.  

Words are powerful. They lead, inspire, and move us. They disgust, repel, and haunt us. Words can create a vacuum or fill a void; make us laugh or make us cry; build us up with love or tear us down with hate. Words tell the truth and spout lies. Filling libraries, churches, and schools, words record our history and predict the future. They work as agents among us building relationships, cultures, and ideologies. Words are the building blocks of stories, legends, and sagas. The language in songs and poetry cut us deep, connecting us to each other and to the world we live in.

COVID-19 has created a new vernacular. We have repurposed language to fit the unfamiliar circumstances we find ourselves in. Epidemic, pandemic and plague seemed antiquated a year ago. Like looking at tintypes of relatives long dead, these words were a thing of curiosity. What was it like back then? They marked periods in history that still send chills up and down our spines: smallpox, bubonic plague, yellow fever, Spanish flu, and polio. Now these words are part of our daily conversations.

The oxymoron, social-distancing is at the forefront of COVID-19 vocabulary. We yearn to be close to the people we love while standing six feet away in fear our hugs and kisses will spread the virus through droplets, a word formerly used to describe the first sign of rain. Other words once signaling a cold or the flu now mark the ominous list of COVID-19 symptoms: muscle aches, fatigue, fever, chills, cough, headache, nausea, etc. There are medical and scientific terms few of us had encountered before the pandemic: respirator, ventilator, mRNA vaccine, personal protective equipment (PPE), asymptomatic, herd immunity, super spreader.

Words are malleable, their definitions changing over time. They shapeshift and morph to fit our circumstances. The language once used in the mental health profession to diagnose someone are now blanket terms describing large swaths of society: Stress, depression, anxiety, anger, loss, grief, hopelessness, and melancholy sum up a collective malaise that’s hard to shake while joy, happiness, security, contentment, comfort, and pleasure are pushed to the fringe of our consciousness as we try to navigate our daily lives. The words we attach to our feelings define our moods. How much more can we take when the media reminds us, “There will be dark days ahead.” Things will get worse before they get better.” We should applaud ourselves for just getting out of bed in the morning. 

And what about the host of confusing vocabulary our elected officials have introduced to save us from ourselves? There are shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and lockdown orders. We are told to isolate and quarantine. What do they mean and how do they differ? With the economy in shambles, we wait as Congress fights over words before dispersing stimulus checks. Years of hate speech culminated in a deadly riot at the United States Capitol leading us to consider the implications of words like insurrection, impeachment and evoking the 25th Amendment. Gone are the days of simple wordplay. Many of us have lost the inclination to sit down and tackle the New York Times crossword puzzle or laugh whole heartedly at a joke. We are under attack by forces both seen and unseen; a mutating virus at the foreground of our battles, distorting our language while upending our lives.

My husband and I watched the movie, Rebecca starring Lily James and Armie Hammer (It’s streaming on Netflix.) I had read the book many years ago while taking a class called Traditions of the Novel for my MA at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The book was written in 1938 by Daphne Du Maurier. The story is about a young woman who falls in love with Englishman, Maxim de Winter, a widower ten years her senior. He is wealthy; she is a lady’s maid whose parents died of pneumonia. The couple marry and move to Maderley, Maxim’s family estate. The new, young wife, Mrs. de Winter, struggles to find her place among the memories of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca. The book was all the rage when it was first published and was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It was adapted for film fourteen more times over the years including the version we watched.

The movie’s ending was different than I remembered. I was curious and found the book Rebecca in my studio. Flipping through the pages, I was transported to a world of words and ideas that were written after World War I when English estates were still tended to by servants, when sex was suggested rather than graphically depicted on the page, and when, unknown to Du Maurier or to her readership, World War II would soon ignite, setting the world’s political stage ablaze. Du Maurier’s words reached across time and rescued me, if only temporarily, from the worry and uncertainty I’ve come accustomed to since the pandemic swept into our lives a year ago.

Today I watched Joe Biden’s inauguration speech where he spoke of unity and healing. Powerful words of reconciliation given the effect language has had on our country in recent years. Americans like the Loggerhead Shrike possess a resourceful and resilient nature that transcends defamatory language. I felt a flutter of hope as President Biden’s words reached across the aisle and into our homes and communities.

Poet, Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

A Christmas Miracle (The Tale of Fluffy and Bluffy)

A Christmas package arrived from my sister Kelli. Ron made me a cup of tea while Kelli and I face-timed, and I opened my gift. Inside were three copies of Fluffy and Bluffy, the children’s book I was holding when I first learned to read.

I had mentioned the book to Kelli months ago while Ron and I were in Green Bay. I told her that I often looked for it when visiting used bookstores and antique shops. There were two puppies with hearts for noses on the dust jacket, but I couldn’t remember the title. There was no way to search for it online. I asked Kelli how she ever found the books. She said as soon as I described the cover, she remembered the title. Our brains are hardwired differently. She thinks in black and white while information swims around my head in a gray fog moored to things more theoretical than fact. She’s eighteen months younger than I am. Her brain had taken a photo of the book, including the title, and had stored it among childhood memories.

Fluffy and Bluffy was written by Alene Dalton and published in 1951. It had been part of my grandma Betz’s children’s book collection. She taught kindergarten for decades in De Pere, Wisconsin. By my mom’s account, I was either three or four when I received the book and learned to read. I remember sitting with someone on my grandparents’ sofa. My mom thinks it was her dad, my grandpa Frankie. The book was already my favorite, and I was excited to listen to the adventure of Fluffy and Bluffy Pooch, twin puppies who meet Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and a little elf named Fibber-dibberus on their walk through the woods. Up until then, letters in books had appeared on pages as sticks, and circles, and humps. That day something magical happened. The words split up and floated on the page, rearranging themselves as tiny soldiers—each letter with its own unique place in a word. In that moment, I became a reader.

I flipped through one of the books Kelli gave me with delight. Peter Rabbit, the pigs, the elf, they were all there in the order I remembered. I lifted it to my face and breathed in deeply. The copy of Fluffy and Bluffy I received from my grandma had smelled musty, like old books do. An aroma that resides deep in me as comfort and a link to knowledge. It is the smell of George Washington crossing the Delaware from my fifth-grade social studies book and the scent of medieval knights raiding a village in a book I checked out from the Fairview South Elementary School library to complete my sixth grade Middle Ages project. It is the smell that burrowed into my clothes after hours of research in the Haggerty Library at Mount Mary University while working on a degree in education. It is what I remember most of that day on the sofa surrounded by people I loved and who loved me enough to sit quietly time and time again until I could read and share the story of Fluffy and Bluffy on my own.

My journey with reading and my love of books was nearly destroyed during my elementary school years. At 65th Street School in Milwaukee where I attended kindergarten, my parents were told by my teacher, a well-meaning, grandmother who wore her curly hair in a bun, that I suffered from petit mal seizures. In her opinion, my frequent episodes of staring into space (something I still do today) was cause for alarm. The news shocked my parents, and unintentionally their concern left me feeling that there was something wrong with me. I don’t remember going to the doctor or being tested at school, but I do remember there were no books in the classroom and that my days consisted of copying the letters of the alphabet from large cards that hung on colored yarn above the chalkboard.

It was in first grade across the street from 65th Street School at Our Lady of Sorrows that I learned being left-handed was the sign of the devil. The nuns had a duty to guard my soul. So, while my classmates learned phonics and read books, I spent reading hour in a classroom with a few kids I didn’t know sitting on my left hand while holding a pencil in my right hand trying to form perfect letters on flimsy, lined paper.

We moved to the suburbs after that terrible year, and any thought of reading books in second grade was dashed when once again I was ushered to a classroom across the hall to learn how to write properly. Over the summer my right hand had forgotten how to form letters. Saint Dominic’s was a new school run by a different order of nuns who also believed my left-handedness was something in need of exorcism. The hit to my budding self-esteem and confidence ran so deep that by third grade and yet another new school (my parents having had enough of the nuns had opted for public education), I could barely speak when called on and dreaded round robin reading where I stuttered so bad, I was often passed over. I had missed three years of phonics and practice in reading. I had also missed three years of learning how to follow instructions. To add to the gaping holes in my education, I have two forms of dyslexia that were identified in college. One is phonological dyslexia. I lack phonetic awareness and cannot sound out new words. The other is called surface dyslexia. It is still difficult for me to take a word or phrase from one text and copy it onto another. For example, copying information from an insurance card onto a doctor’s office intake form may take several minutes, and I usually get it wrong the first time.

My third-grade teacher, a young woman who wore floral-scented perfume, recommended that my parents find me a tutor. Kids smell fear and shame and before Christmas break that year, the bullies had cut me from the herd for their entertainment. The remainder of my elementary school days left a peach pit-sized sickness in my belly as I tried my best to avoid the mean kids while carving out a niche as the funny girl who joined forces with other misfits outside of school where, thank God, I developed life-long friendships.

During those early school years, I gobbled up books at home, escaping to new worlds void of bullies and teasing. Even though books have remained a constant companion in my life, some part of me had always believed if I could just find a copy of Fluffy and Bluffy, the final piece of the healing puzzle would be complete. The book was the key to redemption.

Like Fluffy and Bluffy, books and stories are meant to be shared. In 1989 I gave my daughter up for adoption. That Christmas a dear friend surprised me with a copy of Polar Express accompanied with a beautiful card. Inside she had written, Someday, you will have a chance to read this to her at Christmas.

In the story, a little boy meets Santa after being whisked away with other children on a train, The Polar Express, to the North Pole on Christmas Eve where Santa asks each child to choose a gift. The little boy requests a bell from one of Santa’s reindeers. Santa obliges and cuts a bell from a harness and hands it to the boy. Later, back on the train and headed for home, the boy reaches in his pocket to show the other children the bell but finds a hole instead. On Christmas morning the boy discovers a small box left by Santa. Inside is a new bell with a note, Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Mr. C.  The boy shakes the bell, and it has the most beautiful sound. Unfortunately, his parents can’t hear it. As time passes and his friends grow up, he is the only one left who can hear the bell. The book ends with his parting thoughts. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”

I still believe. Maybe not in Santa, but I do believe in the power of stories and books. I’m blessed to have my daughter in my life now and sent her the copy of Polar Express I received so many year ago. I was hoping to spend Christmas with her and imagined reading the book to her children. Regrettably, I’m not with them because of COVID-19. I hope the book carries a bit of Christmas magic across the miles with this message for my daughter. I love you.

I have read more books this year than I have in the last five years combined. They have acted as friends and as a therapist during these troubled times. Kelli and I cried as I read Fluffy and Bluffy. She had given me the perfect Christmas gift. One copy is for my daughter as a bridge to my past. One copy is to keep here in the present to heal the little girl who believed there was something wrong with her, and one copy is to put in the future house we plan to buy in Wisconsin so that I may begin a new chapter with family and old friends.

Favorite Books I Read in 2020

Fiction

Chera Hammons-Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom (my personal favorite)

Tara French books- In the Woods; The Searcher

Louise Penny- Still Life; A Fatal Grace (reading now)

Scott Graham- Arches Enemy

Jeanine Cummins– American Dirt

Laurinda Wallace- The Disappearance of Sara Colter

Richard Russo– Straight Man

Nonfiction

Amy Irvine- Desert Cabal

Aaron Bobrow Strain- The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez

Isabel Wilkerson- Caste The Origins of our Discontents (reading now)

Barack Obama- A Promised Land

Maria Hinojosa– Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America

Poetry

Tobi Alfier- Slices of Alice and Other Character Studies; Symmetry: earth and sky

Miriam Sagan- Star Gazing

All things Ken Waldman

‘Tis (Not?) The Season

In big, black letters the year 2020 is written across the cover of this week’s Time magazine with a crimson red X crossing it out. Underneath reads “The Worst Year Ever”. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch may get a chuckle out of our suffering, but I find it sad and upsetting. After all, it is the holidays, or is it?

Many of my family and friends have canceled Christmas. It seems a reasonable response to the restrictions we are all living with. The entire planet is under siege this holiday season. Every living soul will mark his or her life by this unfathomable moment in history. And we are changed because of it. Holiday movies set in homes where family and friends gather for food and laughter bombard the senses with warnings. Careful! There’s a super spreader among you. While simultaneously, the longing from Christmas Past runs so deep we cry, surprised by our tears.   

I bought into the whole notion of canceling Christmas even as I lugged plastic bins containing ornaments and lights from the basement. Joy was replaced with obligation. Christmas magic sulked in the corner as I sorted through trimmings and resented the mess it would create knowing full well that I would have to pack it all away after the New Year. Because, really, what’s the point of shopping, baking, decorating, and planning if I have no one to share my dwindling Christmas spirit with?

Then a cold, rainy day awoke the little girl inside me who loved Christmas back in Wisconsin. I threw on a coat and went outside to walk the dogs and feed the birds. Back inside the house, I got to work. There were cards to write, gifts to order, and caramels, fudge, and toffee to make. Christmas music and hot cocoa with Bailys Irish Cream brightened my mood as I wrestled with lights and sorted through a lifetime of Christmas decorations. There is no denying this has been a horrific year, and there is no telling how much of 2021 will be gobbled up by uncertainty, sickness, and death. The Time cover did not lie, and yet suddenly, it seemed more important than ever to keep holiday traditions alive.

In 1647 Britain’s Long Parliament, led by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, cancelled Christmas. The festivities were deemed abhorrent and sinful and were banned for more austere religious practices. Risking arrest and public humiliation, people still practiced Christmas rituals in the privacy of their homes. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish people went as far as attending Catholic services to avoid execution but still practiced Hanukkah with their families at home. Rituals are a part of the human condition. We honor the past and carry it forward through customs and stories. Atrocities and disasters have had little effect on our traditions, and in times of great struggle are the things we cling to. They give us solace. 

I was too young to remember the first moon walk, but I do remember sitting in a restaurant with friends eating breakfast and watching a tiny color T.V. when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded in front of our eyes. It was 1986 and later that year, I was in my tiny apartment in Milwaukee, studying for an exam when breaking news announced the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. On September 11, 2001, I turned on the morning news and was horrified as I watched the flames engulf the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. I called my friend, Sue, who lived in New York. I was still in my pajamas; the tea kettle whistled in the background. The phenomenon is called flashbulb memory. It happens when we remember where we were and what we were doing while witnessing or hearing something extraordinary. Like a flashbulb, our minds take a photo that we carry inside us forever.

Many of us will experience personal flashbulb memories from our lives during the pandemic. This is the year we lost Ron’s mom and three beloved fur babies. It is the year my husband had rotator cuff surgery, which led to an infection, a second surgery, and terrifying moments of touch and go. It is also the year many people I love received terrible news from their doctors.

But even during this dreadful time marked by tragedy, I believe I will remember this period in my life with nostalgia. We rescued five ten-day-old kittens from an ancient boom truck Ron has parked out by the hangars. Two went to good homes, and we kept the other three who make us giggle with their antics. Ron had his second surgery in Green Bay where we stayed two months with my sister Kelli and her husband, Carl. We had an amazing time despite the circumstances. My calendar is less crowded now, and so I have the time to connect with and to pray for the people I love.

Maybe it seems silly to put so much stock in making candy and sending Christmas cards, but when I look back at this Christmas, and I will, I want to have fond memories filled with family traditions and those I’ve picked up along the way. Young people one day will ask what the pandemic was like. I will tell them I decorated the house, hung the lights, and baked a ham for Christmas dinner. These will be my flashbulb memories of 2020. Even Ebenezer Scrooge understood the meaning of Christmas. “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Tonight is Winter Solstice. It is also the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists and religious scholars speculate it was this celestial event that created the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Wise Men to the site of Jesus’ birth. So, if you didn’t buy the tree or stuff the stockings; if there are no presents to wrap or cards to send; if you just feel too overwhelmed by it all, it’s okay. There is still time to step outside this evening at dusk to witness the Star of Bethlehem in the south west sky. This is our Divine gift, our flashbulb memory for surviving a terrible year. It is also a reminder of what this season is truly about. Merry Christmas!

The Ghost of Thanksgiving Present

The Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield, New Hampshire is haunted. I didn’t know this when I was visited by a ghost while in my room on a break between writing workshops during my MFA residency through Southern New Hampshire University. It was my second semester in the program and our cohort’s first residency at the resort.

The ghost appeared in the bathroom as I unceremoniously sat on the toilet. Like smoke, she curled through the doorway and exited through the tiled wall directly in front of me. Her long, blond hair hid her features. She wore a beige, cotton nightgown. The bottoms of her bare feet were the last thing I saw of her before she disappeared. A chill filled the bathroom, and I grabbed a sweater on my way out.

Before joining the scheduled workshop, I reported the sighting to the director of the MFA program. She gave me a knowing smile and recommended that I share my experience with someone at the front desk. Upon doing so, the desk clerk listened with interest before producing a large ledger where she recorded the event. “I believe you saw a young woman who once worked here.” The clerk said. “Poor girl fell down the servant stairs and died. The stairs are gone now. They were back near the room you are staying in.”

“Oh, I see.” I said. “I didn’t know the hotel was haunted.”

“We don’t advertise,” she said. “You just described a spirit many people have seen in that part of the hotel over the years. I believe it was the ghost of the servant girl.”

Word got out that I had seen a spirit. The following morning at breakfast, the dean of our program approached me and sat down. “I understand you saw a ghost last night. I would love to hear about it.”

I told her of the encounter, and she seemed genuinely interested. When I finished, she patted my hand. “That’s a lovely story, dear” she said, “but I don’t believe a word of it.”

That left me puzzled. Did she think I had lied about seeing a ghost, or did she not believe in ghosts? The first made sense. She didn’t know me. Perhaps she thought I made the whole thing up. My second assumption is what I still wrestle with when I tell people I saw a ghost. If the dean took me as a credible source, then she was implying that she didn’t believe in ghosts. If this is true, then how would she or I explain what it was I saw in my room. Certainly, a girl with blond hair wearing a nightgown did not appear in my bathroom only to disappear into a tiled wall. I hadn’t been drinking and wasn’t on any medication. I also had no previous knowledge that the hotel was haunted. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could share the story and not be believed.

Belief. It’s a tricky word. The definition by Oxford Languages states, “[Belief] is the acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.”

In my case, the spirit existed. I saw her. The story I told the dean was true. But beliefs have nothing to do with the truth. Not really. They are based on attitudes, and as the dictionary states, an acceptance that something is true, not that something is true. Our beliefs are hard wired and often begin at home when we are young. My Catholic mother believed in the Immaculate Conception while your mother may have believed in the teachings of Buddha, which is why I pray the rosary and you may use mala beads during meditation. Beliefs affect our thinking and our perceptions of the world we live in. We hold steadfast to them whether they are the truth or not because our families and friends share the same beliefs. Who are we and where do we go if our beliefs differ from those closest to us? I may believe that ghosts do or do not exist, but the truth is something or someone other than a human being entered my bathroom that night.

I have thought a great deal about the dean’s comment over the last several months: I don’t believe a word of it. We are being forced to choose sides based on our beliefs, and now that the holidays are just around the corner, what are we to do?

I’m hearing from friends that the situation we are in because of Covid-19 is creating family arguments and mudslinging before we have even gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. People are being accused of wanting to stay home when in fact they fear getting others sick or getting sick themselves. Some have been given ultimatums. “Well, if you don’t come to our house for Thanksgiving then we’re not coming to yours for Christmas.” Still, others are being ostracized. “If you don’t like the way we do things around here, stay home.”

Many of us continue to work on our relationships as Covid-19 has become politically weaponized. Whatever your beliefs, we are all experiencing tough times right now with many of us pushed to our emotional limits. I have lost count of the people in my life that have suffered because of Covid-19. I am sick of it. All of it, and despite my beliefs or yours, this is still something we must deal with every day.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Emil Frankl, wrote about his experiences living in various Nazi concentration camps. He noted that people who kept track of the days and dreamed of being released by a specific date (For some it was a birthday or anniversary. For others it was the beginning of Hanukkah or Passover.) often tried to escape when the day came knowing full well they would be shot and killed. He said the human spirit isn’t designed for that kind of disappointment. Instead, Frankl survived by relishing the memories of his family and of the life he had before the Holocaust. The holidays may look different this year, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Whether you are like the dean at Mountain View Grand Resort who didn’t believe in ghosts or like Frankl who believed in the resilience of the human spirit, be good to yourselves and to the people you love. We all deserve it.

Have a Little Faith in Me

Old Saint Joseph Church, located on the Saint Norbert College campus in De Pere, Wisconsin, shares a long history with my dad’s French-Canadian side of my family. Rev. Charles Albanel, a French Jesuit, erected the first church in 1676 where it stood for over 200 years. In 1870 Green Bay Bishop Joseph Melcher established a parish at the site for the French-Canadian settlers who worked in the lumber mills along the Fox River. My great-great grandparents Louis and Pheilomen Colburn were among the first parishioners. The community was known as French Town and Saint Joseph’s Church as French Church. In recent weeks, this tranquil place of worship has served as my sanctuary.

Ron had surgery in July for a torn rotator cuff. All seemed to be going as planned until we noticed an abscess on his shoulder where stiches had been removed. We arrived at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house in Green Bay on August 11 and immediately went to the emergency room. That night we learned Ron had an infection and over the next month he would endure painful procedures and a second surgery. Overnight our medical vocabulary and their significance grew exponentially: joint aspiration, synovial fluid analysis, debridement irrigation, arthroscopy of the intraarticular joint, debridement of the anterior portal, P. acne infection, intravenous antibiotic treatment, PICC line, occupational therapy.

Ron’s mental and emotional health deteriorated at a rate that matched the excruciating pain he was in. My sister Kelli and her husband Carl were gracious and took us in. The unknown plagued all of us. When was this going to end? Some nights, I made childish deals with God: If you let Ron live through this, I promise to….

Kelli often got me out of the house and out of my head by playing tour guide. The city of Green Bay is situated along a labyrinth of waterways including the Fox and East rivers that spill into the bay. Bridges connecting the east and west side make driving a challenge for people new to the city.

The drive along the Fox River is magical. In the 1870’s steamboats were replaced by railroads. Iron smelting, lumber milling, and paper production soared in Green Bay. Business tycoons built lavish Victorian, Tudor, American Craftsman, and Greek Revival homes on the banks of the Fox River that are still beautifully maintained today. As a little girl, I dreamed of roaming the halls of these gorgeous estates. And to be honest, I still do. 

On our drives, weary and overwhelmed, I often asked Kelli to stop at Old Saint Joseph to steal a few moments in prayer. Each time I go, I sit across from the stained-glass window of Saint Patrick to remind me that my mother’s Irish side of the family is from this land, too. I am grateful for the strength and grit my mom’s clan has instilled in me. 

In 1889 the original church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. After a donation campaign, Old Saint Joseph Church was constructed in 1890 and today serves as the first college parish in the United States. In 1898 Rev. Bernard Pennings, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest, arrived in De Pere and purchased the church from the Diocese of Green Bay. Abbot Pennings is credited with starting Saint Norbert College. My great-great grandfather Louis and Pennings were friends. Before Louis passed, the family home and land were donated to Saint Norbert College.  

In 1870 Pope Pius IX named St. Joseph the patron saint of the Catholic Church. The National Shrine of Saint Joseph is housed in a chapel at Old Saint Joseph Church. 2020 is being celebrated as the year of Saint Joseph, and the shrine is designated the national pilgrimage site. People come and go to the shrine while I pray, and it is not lost on me that Saint Joseph watches over travelers.

Life’s journeys rarely begin at a starting gate or with a map. They are realized later when we have time and space to breathe and reflect. Old Saint Joseph remains my anchor through this storm. While praying the Rosary, my heart rate slows to focus on gratitude for all the blessings this journey has given me.

I spent time my daughter and met the lovely couple who adopted her. I also met my precious grandchildren for the first time. I have connected with my sister and come to appreciate her as a friend. My cousin Tracy stops by each week with a beautiful dinner for all of us. Carl, my nephews and their girlfriends make Ron and I laugh, reminding us there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Our pets are being loved and cared for by my mom back in Arizona. Ron’s family checks in often for updates and are a great source of encouragement. Old Saint Joseph Church and the land surrounding it are infused with the lives and blood of my family. This connectedness resides in my bones. My prayers are interrupted by big love, a gift the Blessed Virgin Mary has bestowed upon me. She gave of her only son so that I may experience the tremendous joy of family in my heart.

Ron finally got some good news last week. The infection is responding to the antibiotics. He still goes to the hospital each day for intravenous treatments, but we have an end date. He will meet with his doctors on October 1, and we have made plans to return to New Mexico on October 3. His range of motion in his shoulder is getting better each day, and he started driving again, which has given him some independence; something we both need.

 

It is the first day of autumn and the leaves are changing color. The seasonal shift is felt in the crisp morning air. Chatty dances of Sandhill Cranes fly low overhead while we hike the thick woods outside of town. They are making their way south for the winter, reminding me our time here is coming to an end. Preparing to return to the ranch in New Mexico feels more like planning a vacation than a trip home. I will miss my family and friends and the solitude of Old Saint Joseph Church. Part of any journey is recognizing when it is over and how best to say goodbye.

Prayer to Saint Joseph following the Rosary, especially during the month of October, which is dedicated to the Rosary:

To you, O blessed Joseph,
do we come in our tribulation,
and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse,
we confidently invoke your patronage also.

Through that charity which bound you
to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God
and through the paternal love
with which you embraced the Child Jesus,
we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance
which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.

O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family,
defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ;
O most loving father, ward off from us
every contagion of error and corrupting influence;
O our most mighty protector, be kind to us
and from heaven assist us in our struggle
with the power of darkness.

As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God’s Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.

Amen.

Morning Has Broken

A quetzal perched in a mango tree alongside a dozen white chickens roosting contently in the pre-dawn. The air was stagnant and muggy; waiting for the sun to bake the terracotta rooftops and single-track dirt roads that weaved through the pueblito. The pungent barnyard aroma permeated the quiet and acted as a reminder that a hard day’s work lay ahead. I stood a long time, a witness to this extraordinary moment that would vanish when daylight woke the chickens. The quetzal groomed itself, unfazed by my presence. Mating season, his twin tail feathers appeared to flow like emerald ribbons between two sleeping hens.

Photo, National Audubon Society

This was in central Honduras outside a small room I had rented from a farmer. Two fat pigs grunted in their sleep. The farmer’s dog lay sprawled on its side outside my door. A goose slept on a wooden folding chair in the yard, its head tucked deep between folded wings. A normal morning by all accounts, except for the majestic quetzal that seemed to wait, like I was, for something to signal daybreak.

The farmer’s wife startled me when she stepped outside the main house and made her way to the kitchen next to my room. I looked over my shoulder and waved. Turning back, I caught a glimpse of the quetzal fly off before it disappeared into the jungle. The moment vanishing like the fog against the rising sun.

I finished packing for a trip I had planned and went to the kitchen where I whisked eggs alongside the farmer’s wife as she fanned the cooking fire and worked masa into round tortillas. I didn’t mention the quetzal. It was gift I kept to myself.

The quetzal was the only thing among us that morning with the freedom to live life aligned with its God given place in the world. It’s shocking colors reminding me how mundane my circumstances had become. I was headed down the mountain for a supply run and would be gone a week. The barnyard animals and dog would fulfill their obedient roles while I was gone. Envious of the bird, I made a mental note to do something exciting on my trip. Maybe hike the cloud forest above El Progreso or head out to the islands to indulge in the exotic.

It’s been twenty-five years since I stood under that mango tree, yet my mind delivers the image of the quetzal amid the white chickens like a postcard from a faraway place, reminding me that even in extraordinary times, it is the ordinary that keeps us afloat. With the uncertainty and isolation all of us are faced with right now, routines help us keep track of time and give us a reason to get out of bed and toss open the curtains. Moments of laughter and joy throw light on our dark moods. Phone calls act as lifeboats in troubled times marked by loneliness.   

Resplendent quetzals, members of the Trogon family, live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America. None have ever been spotted this far north at our ranch along the Mexican border. But occasionally, I look up while weeding the garden or watering the trees in the orchard hoping to catch a glimpse of that dazzling bird, a beacon among the house finches, sent down from the heavens to remind me there are still wonders and surprises even now, in a world that oftentimes feels heavy and gray.

Let It Be

peaches

In the dream I’m at a big box store. I have finished shopping, and the lines at checkout are long. I finally reach the register where a cheerful woman begins removing items from my cart. Her name is Nikki. It’s embroidered on her denim shirt just above the pocket that covers her left breast.

“I’d say you got seven-hundred and fifty bucks worth of stuff in this cart.” She picks up a three pack of Dawn dish-washing soap secured by heavy-duty shrink wrap that is going to take a pair of scissors and some swearing to undo when I get home. She smiles. “Sure you need all this?”

I don’t and feel stupid when her forearms strain to remove a wedge of Gouda the size of my head from the cart. I point to the cheese. “I certainly don’t need that.”

I stand back to survey what I have done and begin to sort items. When I finish, there is a cart filled with things I don’t need. My total in ninety dollars and seventy-two cents. Nikki and I are waiting on a price check for two white t-shirts. She holds up the shirts. “What do think?”

“They’re non-negotiable. I need them,” I say, though I have no idea why.

Nikki shrugs, and we wait for the kid who said he’d be back lickety-split with a price on the shirts.

The guy behind me doesn’t seem to mind the delay. He points to the case of Sierra Nevada I bought for my husband. “I could go for one of those,” he says.

I look around the store. Customers and employees alike are bustling about. It feels like the holidays, but I’m not sure what time of year it is.

Nikki has a t-shirt turned inside out looking for a barcode or something to enter into the register. She sticks both shirts in a bag and winks. “I’ll tell the kid you decided you didn’t want them.”

“Are you sure? I can wait.”

The kid materializes out of thin air. “They’re five bucks a piece,” he shouts over my head, then disappears into the crowd.

Nikki rings up the shirts and says, “We almost got away with it,” and we both laugh.

I push my cart toward the door. While passing the food court, I wake up and whisper, “What an ordinary dream.”

My dreams are vivid, often prophetic in nature. I wake teasing out their meanings, while I frantically write them down before they dissolve into the ether. I lay on my back confused.  Ordinary. The word danced around the room waiting for my conscious self to rouse before worming its way back inside me, where it dissolved into an over-whelming sense of melancholy.

Thank God, for Nikki, the guy standing behind me in line, and the kid who ran to do a price check. They didn’t know. None of us knew. It was an ordinary day before the pandemic hijacked our global consciousness, leaving everyone on the planet acutely aware that an invisible monster lurks among us, waiting to infect its next victim.

I got up like I do every morning with a long to-do list in my head. Fruit flies had found the plums I stored in a paper bag to ripen. The bag was on the kitchen counter. I placed it up on a shelf with canning supplies so that I would remember to make jam. The residue of the dream was still stuck to my skin, and the motion of putting the plums on the shelf got me wondering. What other ordinary things had I put on a shelf since March 13, the day Trump declared a state of emergency after nearly two months of denial.

Ron and I watched the news and remarked on our good fortune as we witnessed people emptying grocery store shelves of toilet paper and bottled water. We live in the middle of nowhere with enough supplies to last us months. With our closest neighbor a mile away, social-distancing, and stay-at-home orders are things we practice every day. A two-week quarantine? Not a problem.

I planted a garden and in no time, we were picking zucchini. Peaches and plums came on, and I made cobbler with homemade ice cream. We cooked steaks on the grill and had Sunday dinners here at the ranch with friends who were also following New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home orders. Ron and I celebrated his birthday in the Chiricahua Mountains by dipping our bare feet in Cave Creek. I even met a friend to go hiking. Do we dare hug? In the end, we did, and I realized how much I had missed our easy conversations and her thoughtful insights.

All these ordinary things were going on while simultaneously the embers of isolation, despair, and longing for my old life occasionally flared. I pitched a fit while looking for my binoculars after my husband had used them. I cleaned the house until my fingernails split and my hands bled. I swore I would run away from home when Ron’s shoulder surgery was rescheduled, and I had to cancel my trip to Wisconsin to see family for the second time since the virus struck.

kaboodlesWe said goodbye to our beloved cat Kaboodles. Our veterinarian put a hand on my shoulder as I held my little, three-legged darling and sobbed. “Okay, that’s enough,” he whispered, and maybe he was right. Doctors in hospitals around the world watched in horror as their patients died from Covid-19. Giving in to suffering was risky business, so I put my grief on a shelf.

Ron’s dear mother, Natalie, passed in May, and I shelved my pain again. The threat of coronavirus stripped us of traditional customs for burying a loved one. We called the state health department hoping for guidelines to plan a funeral. The information was vague at best. In the end, we honored Natalie in a Zoom memorial with family and friends and buried her on a hillside facing the rising sun, a small group of us standing around unsure of our roles absent a priest or funeral director to guide us.2009-05 Animas Natalie

BabyThen it happened. Ron and I woke to the sound of our Blue Heeler, Baby, struggling to stand up on the hardwood floor next to our bed. She was having a seizure. I lay down next to her and waited for a miracle. When it was clear my prayers had gone unanswered, I ran outside and shouted to God in heaven, “I want my old life back!”

There was no more room on the shelf for my heartache. Every ordinary thing I had done in the last three months had acted as a thin veil concealing the extraordinary. The things I had taken for granted and deemed certain in my life were gone. And now, I would lose this precious girl, too. “Let it Be” by The Beatles echoed in my head as we drove three hours to the veterinarian’s office with Baby in the backseat, my despair gaining traction as her health declined.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,                          Speaking words of wisdom, let it be                                                                                                 And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me,                                              Speaking workings of wisdom, let it be

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YClouds rolled in, bringing welcomed relief after days of 100-degree temperatures. I finally went through the bag of plums and was making jam when the rain came. I turned off the stove and ran outside. Our Border Collie, Hank, darted between trees in the orchard while I got soaked chasing after him. Baby was afraid of thunder and for a moment, I wondered if she was safe inside the house. With my concern came grief when I remembered she was gone, and I cried. I miss her.

I miss so much.

We are all mourning the lives we were forced to abandon. The loss is profound, but each of us has a paper bag of plums on a shelf that needs our attention. Roll up your sleeves and dig in. It is the blessed ordinary things in our lives that heal our hearts, reminding us of who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stolen Grief

Natalie

Ron’s mom, Natalie, recently passed away. Ron’s brother, Cecil, called early in the morning with the news. She lived in a nursing home in Chandler, Arizona not far from Cecil’s house. He was with her in her final hours. A healthcare worker at the home was diagnosed with Covid-19.  Instead of grieving, Ron and I worried Natalie died from the virus and that Cecil may have contracted it while he sat with her through the night.

There are things to do when a loved one passes. We contact family and friends and the funeral home. There are caskets to choose from and church services to arrange. Food, flowers, and holy cards are ordered. Someone writes an obituary and submits it to the local paper; others are asked to speak at the funeral. Hotel arrangements are made for out-of-town guests. Transportation to and from the airport, and from the church to the cemetery are arranged. There is grocery shopping to do, meals to plan, and new suits and dresses to purchase. These are rituals that help us cope. They give us purpose and direction while we mourn our loss. Our need to do something, anything, is primal. We honor our dead. It is a fundamental part of being human. But coronavirus stripped us of those rites. Instead, Ron and I sat in a state of inertia that left each of us edgy, sad, and bewildered.

We had permission to move Natalie from Arizona to New Mexico to bury her here. Could we move her if she had the virus? Who would test her? Would we need to bury her someplace else? We called family and friends with the news. No, we would not be having a funeral here at the ranch. Maybe a memorial later, we said. Not knowing what that meant or when it would happen.

Cecil was still at the nursing home waiting for instructions on how to keep himself and his wife, Patty, safe once he got home. Ron called the New Mexico Department of Health. He had questions about the virus. Should his brother be tested given the circumstances? If his mother was tested for the virus, how long before we had the results? What protocols were we to follow regarding a burial here at the ranch, or was that even possible? At some point the gentleman on the phone admitted he was just reading directly from the CDC website and suggested we do the same.

There was no time for tears. Instead, we were forced to navigate the Covid-19 wormhole. Ron and his brother spoke often throughout the day. Natalie had been tested for the virus at the funeral home. We would have the results in about a week. Cecil went home and stripped down on the patio before going into the house and taking a shower. He would need to quarantine for fourteen days. The funeral home director thought there would be no threat of the virus after Cecil’s quarantine was up and that it would be safe to transport Natalie.

The following day, Ron’s ex-wife, Becky, posted a beautiful photo of Natalie and an obituary on Facebook. Natalie was gone, and this was the first evidence of her passing that felt real. Border Patrol Agents stopped by with a lovely card and a bottle of Patrón to toast Natalie’s long life. We contacted a local friend who agreed to dig the grave at the Border Cowboy where she will be laid to rest on Saturday.

Ron and I, along with his daughter, Xochi, son-in-law, Matt, and granddaughter, Ada, visited the burial site. We have arranged a Zoom meeting with family and friends and are busy collecting photos for a slideshow. Cecil and Patty will be here with us at the ranch. Natalie’s life partner, W.H. Adams, and his children will join us at the grave site. In the days since Natalie passed, we have hobbled together something that resembles the customs we shared “before the virus”.  A tagline, I fear, we will be uttering for years to come—our lives irrevocably altered by the pandemic.

Natalie was born August 27, 1930 and would have turned ninety this year. She was born during the Great Depression and was in grade school when Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II in Europe. She was a young mother when the Korean War broke out and raising two teenage sons during the Vietnam War. She was a strong and gracious woman who had witnessed a great deal of this country’s suffering. To leave us during the pandemic seems both unjust and fitting.

As a young mother with two boys, Natalie, and her husband, Cecilio, attended Arizona State College, which is now Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Cecilio was Mexican American. Cultural norms being what they were back then, they had a difficult time finding teaching jobs. They persevered and found positions on the Navajo Reservation near Tuba City where they taught for several years. The family moved to Douglas, Arizona in 1964. Natalie eventually became a school principal and years later, met W.H. Adams. After she retired, she moved here to the ranch in Animas, New Mexico where she and W.H. lived a full life. She enjoyed traveling the desert on a four-wheeler, working in her yard, and spending time with family and friends.

She was loved by so many people and deserves a proper funeral, and so do we. But our loss remains in suspended animation. This is the cruel, parting gift of coronavirus. There will be no service, no hugs, no condolences. We will not gather as a family to tell stories, to eat a good meal, or to say our proper goodbyes. Instead, we search for familiar ground; something we can hold onto that resembles what used to be before the virus.

Natalie’s obituary appeared in the Douglas Dispatch with an ominous reminder of where we are in human history. “Arrangements are pending”.

Someday we will all come together here at the ranch to celebrate her life, but for now, each of us must find our own way through the void.

 

 

Border Talk (Part 9)

Geronimo trail 3I packed a picnic lunch before Ron and I headed south toward Geronimo Trail for a well-deserved break from spring chores at the ranch. The trail is an eighty mile stretch of county and U.S. Forest Service back country road that winds thirty miles though the Animas Valley and up over a pass in the Peloncillo Mountains before it drops down into the San Bernardino Valley ending in Douglas, Arizona. A gorgeous four hour round trip was just what we needed, or so I thought.

Geronimo Trail 2Climbing out of the Animas Valley into the mountains, the desert floor flora is replaced by pine and desert oaks. A plaque of the Arizona -New Mexico Boundary marks the crest of the pass. There are also two other signs near the site. One marked the U.S. Mormon Battalion Trail—the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history. It was led by Mormon officers and commanded by regular U.S. Army during the Mexican – American War from July 1846 to July 1847. The other, a U.S. Forest sign that cautioned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area.

Geronimo Trail 5                  Geronimo trail 8

While Ron and I enjoyed sliced salami, cheese, apples, and oatmeal cookies I had baked earlier that morning, I contemplated both the historical marker and the sign warning us of smugglers. Not much had changed in the 175 years since the war. Back then this part of the country still belonged to Mexico and would until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 when Mexico sold the United States 30,000 miles of its northern borderlands for ten million dollars. History books are full of reasons why we ended up with so much land for pennies on the dollar, nonetheless, since claiming this vast desert landscape, we have fought hard to keep it for ourselves. The No Trespassing signs nailed to gates and fence posts on every ranch flanking the Geronimo Trail may keep hunters and weekend outdoor enthusiasts off private property, but they stand as proof to those crossing the border illegally that they have entered the United States. One could argue the need for a monstrosity of a wall or fence spanning 2,000 miles of southern borderlands to keep the riff raff out. Or one, like myself, could argue that it’s time to vote the current demagogue out of office. Those were my thoughts as Ron cut apple slices with his pocketknife, and we scanned the vistas for wildlife.

Geronimo Trail 9The terrain changed abruptly as we entered the San Bernardino Valley where fields of wildflowers encroached on prickly pear cactus. It was late afternoon. We were recapping the day’s adventure and weighing the risk of contracting coronavirus if we stopped to pick up a few groceries in Douglas. When on the horizon, we noticed the newly constructed border fence just east of town. We had been within miles of the border all day and hadn’t seen so much as a footprint. All the joy the desert had filled me with evaporated.

Geronimo Trail 12I asked Ron to pull over so I could take pictures. How could this be happening right under our noses? Human rights organizations and environmental watchdogs are no match for the media blitz covering the coronavirus. Everything from the 2020 presidential race to global warming has taken a backseat while Trump marches on with his 2016 campaign promise, “I will build a great wall—and no one builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a wall, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Geronimo Trail 13Ron and I stared at the 30-foot tall scourge on the land as though we were watching an alien spaceship approach. My camera hung limp at my side. I hadn’t attended protests regarding building the wall or kept up with the news. I didn’t deserve a place at the table with photos to share. Our our local border communities had been sucker-punched, while I turned a blind eye. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we drove closer to town, the wall grew exponentially in stature until it was the only thing I saw. It was Sunday and a construction crew worked with the determination of an ant colony. I asked Ron to pull over again. I thought of how fitting it was that we had traveled so much open country on a road named after Geronimo, a great Apache warrior who surrendered to the U.S. military in Skeleton Canyon some thirty miles north of the border after he was promised land in Arizona for his people. Instead, he and his band of followers were shipped to Florida where they were imprisoned. And there I stood, on the same land Geronimo had once navigated, witnessing yet another one of this nation’s great injustices.

Geronimo Trail 16

Racism, prejudice, bigotry, and fear, we all have assigned seats at these tables. I picked up my camera and took dozens of photos of the wall and construction site. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the words of Thomas Jefferson as written in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We have strayed far and wide from that proclamation, but as Covid-19 is reminding us, we are all created equal. We do not bow to the political powers that be, rather we, the people, hold the power.

The ride north out of Douglas was quiet with no radio or unnecessary conversation to interrupt our thoughts. Just south of Silver Creek, Border Patrol Agents had gathered a group of illegal immigrants. All of them men, and all of them wearing masks provided by our government. These men are our new Geronimo. The stories of how we treat them, and how we treat our border will one day fill the pages of history books. The accounts will be either of good men and good women doing great things or quite the opposite. We still have the collective power to choose.

 

Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

BreadThose of us in charge of shopping and cooking for our families during the coronavirus crises are under tremendous stress. We struggle daily to fill our pantries with staples like flour, sugar, and bread. We scramble to use up fresh produce before it goes bad while online price gouging and misleading product descriptions have us questioning humanity. For those of us who eat out often, shopping for groceries and cooking meals are skills we must quickly master. Many of us have a full house since schools and universities shut their doors, moving classes online. Who knew kids ate so much? Then there are those of us who cannot afford the groceries to feed our families right now and are faced with hard choices. Pay rent or serve breakfast. We are shedding our old lives at an unprecedented speed, and yet, at least two or three times a day we are to gather the resources, imagination, and courage to feed ourselves and the people we love.

Living eighty miles from a grocery store takes strategic planning, so I keep a running shopping list handy, adding to it often. Everything from spices, produce, and dairy to personal hygiene needs, pet supplies, and paper products ends up on that list, and I am lost without it on those rare occasions I forget it on the kitchen counter when I go to town. The last time I was able to find everything on the list was Friday, March 13, the same day Trump declared a national emergency and our nation’s collective spirit of goodwill was upended as we flocked to stores, filling shopping carts and clearing shelves before someone else grabbed the last roll of paper towels.

Doolan Dolls 3I come from a long line of Irish and Bohemian, God-fearing Catholic women on my mom’s side who had to make do during tough times. My great-grandmothers, great-aunts, and grandmother provided for their families during the Great Depression and WWII by growing gardens, canning produce, and making meals stretch by adding rice, noodles and potatoes to what little meat they had. Those women were raised on farms in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and possessed the skills to provide for their families in their bones. My grandma on my dad’s side was an only child who grew up in Green Bay. Living in the city presented different challenges during hard times. Many of her recipes, which I still make today, include canned vegetables and ground beef.

My momMy mom followed in these traditions. As a result, we always had a big garden, home-cooked meals, and homemade desserts. My sisters and I were taught the art of canning and how to cook and bake on a limited budget. After all, my parents were raising four daughters who went through a gallon of milk a day and nine loaves of homemade bread a week.

Sisters 2

With roots like these, it is no wonder my love of cooking and baking began when I was very young. It is also no wonder that I picked up the cautionary tales of food sacristy and the fear of hunger while working alongside these women in their kitchens. The voices of these strong, ingenious family matriarchs spoke the truth and prepared me for a Kidnergartencatastrophe like Covid-19 when I was still a girl. The residue of their stories manifested in a recurring nightmare that began when I was very young, maybe five or six. In the dream I am a little orphan who, with other little orphans, come across a gypsy camp in the middle of the night. There is a campfire burning and covered wagons scattered among towering trees. The other children and I crouch down on the forest floor to watch. A few men play music on violins and accordions while women and children dance around the campfire. There is meat roasting on the fire, and I realize that I am starving to death. The cold wind enters my bones. I stumble in the dark looking for a blanket and realize the other children are gone. I know in my heart I am a gypsy orphan, but these gypsies are not my people. I am afraid to ask for food or a blanket. My young mind cannot grapple with the hunger and cold, and I wake crying. I have carried this dream like a memory all these years. So, on February 29, when Seattle officials announced the first coronavirus related death, my survival instincts kicked in.

Mom and Kelli

I had been reading about the spread of the virus in China, Iran, and Europe, and our government’s continued lack of response. But when it reached our shores, those warnings from long ago propelled me into action. I took inventory of the kitchen and basement and added canned vegetables, dry goods, and cleaning products to my shopping list. I combed the internet for bulk supplies, pain relievers, and cold medicine. By the end of the day, I had ordered batteries and flashlights. I went to bed exhausted, ready to defend against the invisible enemy.

Over the next two weeks, the house of cards fell. I called off the CWC and open mic nights following the news that the Tucson Festival of Books was canceled. Cochise College wrestled with keeping some semblance of normalcy until administration conceded and sent out a notice that students would not be returning to campus after spring break. On March 16, the stock market closed with its third worst day in its history. By Saint Patrick’s Day, our pantry and freezers were full.

Ron and I are currently hunkered down at the ranch working on projects until the wake of this storm is over. The stories and lessons of my past continue to drive me. Each day I scour the internet for things we are running low on and alternatives to fresh produce until our garden and orchard bears fruit. The welfare of our animals is also important. Having enough cat litter and canned dog food is a concern.

Last night, we barbecued rabbit, quail, and dove, and I served the meat with homemade mac and cheese and creamy coleslaw. The cabbage had seen better days. I usually peel off the outer leaves and put them in our compost, but this time I added them to the slaw as the wise voices from my past echoed off my grandma’s copper-bottom pots and pans that hang above my kitchen sink. I hope these words help you, too during this terrible, terrible time. God bless.

Grandma Evelyn 2

General Information:

We don’t waste food in this house (the golden rule) … Eat that. It’s good for youYou may leave the table after you eat everything on your plate… Don’t ask for seconds when company comes… Don’t ask for seconds when we are visiting your aunt… Say please and thank you, no matter what your aunt serves… Eat what is put in front of you… Leftovers are good for you… Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. Never mind who is paying… We’re taking that home in a doggies bag.

Grandma Betz

Cooking Instructions:

You can use mayonnaise instead of eggs in a pinchlard makes pie crust flakyAdd a little apple sauce to make a cake moistMake sure you have flour, eggs, sugar, and butter in the house… A pie is done when you can’t see the fruit coming through the bottom crust… Start Christmas cookies early. They freeze well… Yeast rises best in a warm kitchen… Serve bread and butter with every meal. It fills you up…Use the leftover ham for pea soup or scallop potatoes and ham… Fry eggs in bacon grease… Chicken bones add flavor to soup… Use the old vegetables for stews and soups.  

Gardening:

Plant Memorial Day weekend. Harvest Labor Day Weekend… Never mind the instructions on the packet. Think of the plant before sticking seeds in the ground. How much space does that plant need?… Poke your finger in the ground, pull it out and stick a seed in the hole… Let the raspberry patch go wild. The fruit comes in sweeter… Pick vegetables as soon as they are ripe. If you wait too long, the plant will stop producing… Plant peas early along a fence so they can climb… Don’t water every day. Plants need stress to grow strong… Tomatoes need sun… Give plenty of room for squash and pumpkins to sprawl… Pull weeds often, or they’ll choke the garden…Shuck corn before you bring it in the house.

Canning:

Make sure you follow the instructions on Sure Jell, or your jam won’t set… Make sure the jars are clean and dry before you put the lids on, or they won’t seal… Make sure the boiling water covers the lids, or they won’t seal… Pickles, jam, and tomatoes will keep forever if the seal is good… Freeze corn, peas and beans… Keep canned goods in the basement on clean shelves; same with squash and potatoes… Check to make sure the seal took before you eat anything… Rotate jars every year…Eat up the previous year’s food before you start on the new.

Table Blessing Before Each Meal:

Bless us our Lord, and these thy gifts,

Which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,

Through Christ, Our Lord.

Amen

Grandma Betz 2

 

If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more, I invite you to follow my blog. Thank you spending time with me here.

The Spirits are Mad

corona virus mapMy husband saw a cardiologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for erratic high blood pressure and an irregular EKG. It was our first appointment with this doctor. He was a lovely man from India who warned us about the dangers of the COVID-19 virus saying we need to be careful because the spirits are mad. I could not agree more.

The doctor explained his role in this new world while he examined Ron. The staff was being trained in COVID-19 protocol and infectious disease. “I am a cardiologist, but we need to be prepared. So, now I have other responsibilities,” he said.

The doctor called in a colleague after Ron’s exam. Both cardiologists agreed Ron needed a stress test and echo-cardiogram, but each doctor explained, in his own sympathetic way, that because all appointments and resources were slated for fighting the virus that testing of any kind had been put on hold. “We can make an appointment, but I am afraid you will not get your tests for three months.”

Neither Ron nor I took the news well. This is my husband’s heart after all. “I’m sorry,” the attending physician said. “There is nothing we can do right now.”

We all looked down at our shoes. There is nothing we can do. “If you feel chest pains, or a tingling in your arm, or you have shortness of breath, go to the emergency room,” Ron’s doctor offered up apologetically. “They will have to see you.”

We live three hours from a hospital. Even in the best of times we understand the medical risks of living so far from town. By the time we reached the truck, Ron and I had reached an unspoken agreement. I don’t want to talk about this right now.

Ron and I have a pretty good yin-yang thing going on. He knows where his next meal is coming from, and I know the leaky faucet will eventually get fixed. We work hard and enjoy the peace and quiet of country living. Even the cardiologist said the ranch was a perfect place to live during the pandemic. That was before he examined my husband.

The map of COVID-19 cases in the United States as reported by ABC News is rising hourly while testing ramps up and the virus spreads. We may never learn how many folks have or have had COVID-19. What is equally troubling is that people like my husband and others who are denied medical care are the indirect victims of this pandemic. Because of budget cuts and lack of resources in a toxic political climate, patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases will not receive the medications, treatments, and surgeries they so desperately need. And the ugly truth is that some will die.

I held out hope that the virus would rip through us like a desert dust storm leaving few casualties in its wake. Then yesterday I found the only egg our Great Horned owl pair had produced this year. A violent storm had come through, knocking the owls’ nest to the ground. The egg was among the debris. In many cultures the Great Horned Owl represents wisdom. I cradled the egg in an attempt to save what was already lost.

The Kaqchikel Indians of Guatemala believe that an egg is the symbol of new life. In ceremonies led by a healer, people pray over eggs before placing them in a fire. The smoke then carries the prayers to heaven. I said a prayer for Ron’s health, and set the owl egg in a fire we had going in the green house. The smoke swirled upward, and I thought of the doctor’s warning, The spirits are mad. I pray that we have the global wisdom it will take to weather this storm.

 

**If you like this post and would enjoy reading more, I invite you to follow my blog, which you can do by clicking the “follow” button at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Thank you for taking the time to read my work!

 

When I find Myself in Times of Trouble

 

coronavirus_update920.jpg.daijpg.420Two weeks ago, I was working on a response to the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel, American Dirt. Joe Biden had just won the South Carolina Democratic primary, there was still hope for the stock market, and Pete Buttigieg’s announcement that he was pulling out of the primary race hardly made a ripple in the news cycle. Then the earth’s axis tilted, and we, every human on the planet, lost our balance. Reviewing my notes on American Dirt, I feel a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time. Were we that naive, or simply woefully unprepared? Does it matter now? Not at all. COVID-19 is changing the global landscape at an unprecedented rate.

The Walmart in Douglas, Arizona was out of toilet paper, bleach, and bottled water when I stopped in to pick up a few things. This new reality shut down my frontal cortex, the thinking part of my brain, igniting the primitive amygdala and a compulsion to hoard. There were no guarantees where the next meal was coming from when Homo sapiens first roamed the planet 200,000 years ago. Sticks and stones were hunting weapons of choice. Man-made fire was a novel idea and agriculture was not yet on the radar. We were as much prey as predator. Those with a superior amygdala went on to propagate. My ancestors had survived natural selection. Every bit of their DNA resided in my cells as I careened up and down aisles snatching things off shelves with abandon. How many cans of Bush’s Baked Beans did my husband and I need in the face of a pandemic? Apparently six, or at least that seemed adequate at the time.

Every angle of COVID-19 is being explored and tested. From healthcare, to politics, to education, to social reform, we are all talking about it. But more importantly, we are waiting. And for what? We don’t know. As a species, we don’t respond well to the unknown. Or at least not since we relied on our primitive brains. What we cannot control, we fix. We are good at cleaning up messes and restoring order. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and typhoons may devastate coastal towns, but once the water recedes, we get to work. In the aftermath of tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes we pick up the pieces and rebuild our communities.

COVID-19 has erased the question of why me? and has replaced it with, Why Us? Why all of us? What good can come of this? we ask ourselves. Maybe this is the starting point. A new beginning. We are unwitting participants in the greatest social experiment of humankind. Under the proverbial microscope, we will be examined and judged years to come in history books, sociological studies, and houses of worship by our response to this threat. This is a big responsibility to place on a select few, never mind the entire world population. Do we give in to fear and allow our primitive brains to influence our decisions, or do we acknowledge our vulnerability making room for compassion and empathy?

How are we to pray in the face of such danger? Today at church I flinched when someone sneezed. What we are experiencing is a parable from the Old Testament: The king ignores his people to gain riches until God smites him. Whether you read this as a political statement, or see yourself as the king, doesn’t much matter anymore. In the end, God protects his flock. That is the message I must adhere to when someone sniffles.

While at the store I overheard two gentlemen talking. One was saying that closing schools is ridiculous. The other agreed and said the virus isn’t a problem here in the United States. Money, power, prestige, and/or celebrity cannot buy a get out of jail free card; either can rhetoric, hearsay, or wishful thinking. We are all at risk.

Global and local civility alike are at stake. There is finger pointing, blaming, and conspiring. Someone must be at fault. Scientists, doctors, scholars, and healthcare workers are scrambling to provide answers to how this happened while simultaneously tending to the sick, developing test kits, and God willing, finding a vaccine.

What I would like to see is an independent global coalition of world-renowned scientists, doctors, researchers, economists, and sociologists granted permission to travel this precious planet, regardless of borders, to collect objective data on threats to earth and humankind. From that data, the coalition, rather than nations, drafts policies to preserve and protect. I believe that is a conversation worth having. In the end, perhaps this canary in the mine is the thing that unites us all.

A friend from Miami is staying with us right now. Last night at dinner, he brought up the quiet he experienced after 9/11 after all planes had been grounded. My husband and I are blessed to live in a place where we are woken each morning by the cacophony of birds. We have everything we need right here at the ranch, including quiet, to weather most any storm. As long as I don’t listen to the news, I can get on with my day. For now, we are hunkered down as they say. The peach and plum trees are in full bloom while the bees are frantically gathering pollen unaware of what is going on beyond the orchard.

 

 

Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want the smuggler caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Angels We Have Heard On High

christmas tree with baubles

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Thirty years ago, I gave my beautiful daughter up for adoption. My life was in shambles and without a strong support system, I did what was best for her. Intellectually I have always known this. My heart, on the other hand, never reconciled my decision. Each Christmas I took her adoption box from my closet and spread out the items I had collected during and after my pregnancy on the bed. The little hospital band she wore on her wrist, no bigger than a bread tie, held her DNA and remains the most precious thing I own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, she stayed three years old in my thoughts. An age in which she could walk and talk but would have still been completely dependent on me. This was the little girl I mourned for all those years.

After a long and emotional search, my daughter and I finally found one another, and I have been twice blessed to have traveled to Wisconsin to see her this past year. She is an extraordinary, accomplished young woman with a lovely husband and four precious children. All the things I feared would become of her life because of my decision have been laid to rest. She grew up with loving parents who continue to have her best interests at heart, and as a result, she has a full life.

This is the season of giving and receiving, of forgiveness and new beginnings. Of love. For thirty years I roamed the earth in a fog, paralyzed with guilt and sadness for what I had done. I kept my story mostly to myself in fear of judgement. Seeing my profile and long fingers in my daughter, marveling at her smile, and embracing her after all these years gives me hope for a better future.

The sun has set on this most blessed day of the year. The gifts are sorted in neat piles, leftovers are stacked in the refrigerator, and the house is quiet. This Christmas, the adoption box and the broken dreams associated with it remain in the closet. I am so grateful my prayers have been answered and that my daughter has accepted me into her life, making this a very Merry Christmas!

Border Talk (Part 8)

MoccisiansMy husband stumbled across a backpack about a mile from the ranch left behind by an undocumented immigrant. Ron brought it home where we opened it together. Inside we found a few t-shirts, a pair of underwear, and a baseball cap. We also retrieved a phone with cords, a charger, and an extra battery. Phones are essential for human traffickers and drug runners who are moving cargo. These criminals often strap carpet remnants to the soles of their shoes allowing them to traverse the desert undetected. The carpet booties we pulled from the pack were hand-sewn and resembled moccasins. The owner of the backpack was most likely spotted by Border Patrol agents and opted to leave his things behind rather than risk getting caught. These packs are strewn across the border landscape like archaeological talismans of a troubled present-day civilization many of us ignore.

quartzI shook the pack to make sure it was empty, and a piece of quartz fell to the floor. This was the real story; a clue to the pack’s owner. Before finding the quartz, I imagined a hardened criminal strapping on the booties over his shoes. Someone stout and muscular with cruel eyes and powerful hands who wore a pistol at his hip. This was the kind of person I could reason into existence. A camo-clad criminal who preyed on the weak and who might show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night. The thought of this guy traveling so close to our house left me examining each item in the pack as though Ron had unearthed a monster in our midst.

What kind of drug runner would pick up a dusty piece of quartz? Certainly not a grown man with evil in his heart. I looked over the clothing again and realized that the t-shirts were size small, and the baseball cap was fitted for someone much smaller than me. The pack most likely belonged to a kid who had been recruited by cartel members to smuggle drugs. I imagined a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen crossing the desert, shielded from detection under a night sky. Alone and afraid, he may have wandered off the trail he had been instructed to follow. I wondered who he had left behind. Was his mother at home crying because her son did not come home from school? Did this boy agree to smuggle drugs because the money would help his family or because someone big and scary wielded a knife? Did he cross the border because he saw no other future for himself?

basketMy mother has a Native American basket hanging on a wall in her spare bedroom. My grandparents found it in the attic of their first home, a farmhouse not far from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The people who sold them the house had left it behind. I stay in that room when I visit my mom and have often contemplated the basket. It’s utilitarian, void of decoration. My grandparents purchased the house during the Great Depression. People in that part of the country were getting up in the morning hungry and out of options. Over weak coffee, many families agreed to flee their farms in hope of finding work in the city. A basket like that would not have been considered a necessity or an heirloom, so it didn’t find its way into a moving box. It was probably made by an Oneida Indian woman and found on the property when the fields were cleared for farming in the late 1800’s. I am surprised my grandma didn’t throw it out. She wasn’t one to collect things unless it was tied to her Irish heritage. In any case, I am the beneficiary of her wisdom to hold onto it and to pass it down to my mom. It is a reminder of the past and our part in it. The Oneida lost much of their land in bogus state treaty deals. The 18,000-acre Reservation southwest of Green Bay is a fraction of the land they once occupied. Like the booties, I may not know the maker of the basket, but both items represent a dark time in American history. A sort of cultural complacency that has allowed for injustice to occur on this soil.

Ron and I threw out the contents of the backpack, but we held onto the booties. They are the physical evidence of our nation’s shared role in agreeing to turn a blind eye to poor kids smuggling drugs across a desert border because their lives and those of their families depend on it. Like the basket, the booties are also evidence for future generations to contemplate.

The piece of quartz has a prominent space on our mantle, a reminder that I can always do better.