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

 

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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.

 

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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.