My friend, Paula, is an incredible inspiration. She is currently in Vietnam, again, with a mission bringing much-needed gifts to people affected by Agent Orange. She works with veteran groups (both US and Vietnamese) and with an orphanage where children disabled by Agent Orange live. Some of the gifts she is bringing this year are for surgeries for the children.
She is also a gifted writer. Here you can read about her mission in her own words.
This is a story about a boy, books, bugs and, if you believe, a spirit.
The scene is a small, sunny house in TX. It is a bit of a mess. Contents of boxes and drawers are in piles all over the living room. Books are stacked high on the living room floor.
A man, in his eighties
His two daughters: one in her forties, who lives across the street with her husband and two high school-aged children, and one in her fifties, flown in from the coast.
His wife, in her seventies, dying of cancer in one of the bedrooms
A hospice nurse, in her thirties. Not the dippy one we had at first, but the second one: pleasant, professional, quiet, deep, a single Mom.
A boy, nine, her son, whom we never meet.
The wife/mother does not want company. She has let us know we should leave her alone to her job of dying as quickly as she can. She's a stubborn woman and one can imagine her talking to her bodily organs and telling them to get on with it. We go in the room from time to time to make sure she has everything she needs and give her morphine. We try to comfort and she will hold our hands, but is anxious to have us leave. She does not want to see the cards from family members who are far away. She will not even take a a call from her sister.
She was a teacher. She lived and breathed teaching as a passionate as any preacher. Her subject was ecology. She loved the earth and its creatures like no one I have ever known. She was not the "cute panda" type, she was the type that wanted to know the scientific name for every flower and bird, what its habitat was and who/what it ate. As much as she was curious about the world, she assumed every one else was, too. She taught classes for children when she could, at summer day camps and through 4-H. She wrote articles for Ranger Rick magazine. I'm not sure how many she ever submitted, but she loved writing about the smaller creatures for the smaller humans.
Bugs were her favorite thing. Ever.
She was convinced that insects were to be our salvation. The more we learned about bugs, the better off we humans would be. I've been putting pins into bug bodies since before I went to school. My father made beautiful wooden cases for all the collections. And he made her book shelves. Lots and lots of books shelves. She had a vast library of books on bugs (and plants, and fossils, and birds, but mostly bugs)
So, we're sorting. The house will be sold and Dad will move in with my sister's family to become resident-grandfather instead of visitor-grandfather and will busy himself with after-school pickups and grocery runs for five instead of two. My sister has a stack of books she wants to keep. I have plans to live on a boat, so I take none of them. Dad prefers spy novels.
The morning arrives when we make the final call to hospice. Our nurse comes to care for only us, now. We are in the kitchen waiting for my sister to come after dropping her kids at school. She does not yet know the wait is over. After my sister is told, then they will come collect Mom in that black station wagon. We talk, have some tea. The nurse begins to pour the leftover liquid morphine on a (clean) bed pad on the kitchen counter as we chat. My father sees this and gets a box of bugs in small tubes of formaldehyde from my mother's office. Just as with morphine, this toxic substance shouldn't be poured down the sink. He dumps the bugs tubes on the pad. Then we have to explain to the nurse that Mom was a serious bug collector.
"Oh, really? I wish I could have talked with her about that. My son is nine and all he is interested in is bugs. We go to the library and he gets out stacks of books on insects and reads them over and over."
My father and I turn to look past her to the living room where we have three huge stacks of books on bugs for elementary-aged children: hard to get books, out of print books, expensive photograph books. You're kidding me.
When my sister arrives and has had her goodbye time, I grab her and pull her off to the living room and tell her why we must give this woman a stack of kid bug books. "You're kidding me!", she says, grabbing some empty bags from the kitchen. We carry two full bags out to the nurse's trunk, over her polite protests. But you don't understand, we say, this is exactly how our mother would want to leave us. She's not in that body bag, she's in her books.
I sometimes think about the boy, whose name we never knew or have chosen to forget, who will be the greatest entomologist of his day, learning all he can about bugs, from a teacher who will never stop teaching.
a butterfly quilt I designed and made sometime in the last decade
If there was a 12-step program for meat eaters, my life would be in and out of meetings. My first foray into a meatless diet was probably in my teens, but it didn't last too long, since meat was in every dinner my mother cooked. I tried again when I left the nest, but it only lasted a few years. I tried, I really tried. I had the Laurel's Kitchen and the Moosewood cookbooks, full of penciled notes. I had glass jars full of beans and grains on the cupboard shelves.
Once the babies arrived, I went down the meat road again, convinced that youngsters needed the protein that animals provided. There were various flirtations with vegetarian life over those years, even shared by the growing ones, but I always found it too hard to maintain the strict no-meat-what-so-ever plan.
There are lots of reasons to be a vegetarian. I can list them easily, but I always felt uncomfortable with the spiritual reasons. Logical, scientific reasons somehow make more sense and are easier to discuss. The environmental impact of eating so high on the food chain uses far too much water and arable land to sustain the earth. Check. Yep, I totally get that. Factory farming practices jeopardize our food supply by relying on antibiotics, growth hormones and recycling animal parts in animal feed. Understood completely.
Still, the idea of not eating animals for spiritual reasons didn't sit well with me. Aren't humans supposed to eat animals? We are omnivores, aren't we? We're designed to chow down on all those cows and chickens and pigs. That's why the smell of a grilled sausage starts up the salivary glands in overdrive.
Slowly, though, the spirit has started weighing in on the conversation.
Is it not a spiritual matter to revere the earth and thus want to conserve fresh water and cropland?
Is it not a spiritual matter to want nourish my body with healthy food?
Is it not a spiritual matter to allow animals to be able to eat their natural food, raise their young and live out their natural lives without being killed for food?
The 12-step programs know that logic and science are just talking points for the spiritual. It's always been the spiritual. I just had to get comfortable enough to admit it. Now, the decision not to eat meat feels right. It feels necessary. It feels natural.
Lately, I've been reading about the conditions under which eggs and milk are harvested in our industrialized farms and the spirit is starting to make some comments about becoming vegan.
Here's a recipe that I concocted the other day. The quantities are rough, because I don't measure when I cook, but it was delicious.
(feeds two hungry sailors)
1 Tablespoon coconut oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 inch section of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
2 teaspoon of garam masala or equivalent mixture of black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin and cloves
2 Tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup water
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 large sweet potato, diced and boiled until soft (save 1/2 cup of the water to add)
a few big handfuls of spinach leaves
a handful of golden raisins
1/2 cup coconut milk
small handful of unsweetened coconut flakes for garnish
Heat oil in a deep pan and add aromatics and spices. When the onions have become translucent, add the tomato paste and water. Add the chickpeas, sweet potato, spinach and raisins. Sauté until the spinach wilts. Stir in the coconut milk. Decant into bowls and sprinkle on the coconut flakes.
Ok, so it might not look very appetizing, but it was yummy!
I know there are a multitude of analyses written about Blood Meridian. I can see why. It's an arresting narrative. This book reminds me why reading is so compelling. Even more so, when I did some initial research to discover that the Glanton Gang was real. I couldn't put it down. I literally read it my entire waking hours until it was done. Then I read it again.
I haven't read any of the reviews and thoughtful opinions of professional literature fellows. These are just my digestions after being spellbound by this book for 5 days. I'll read about the book later.
First, I love a book with ample vocabulary that I have to go look up. I won't even count the Spanish words. These are just the a few of the ones my kindle dictionary gave up on.
The main theme is obvious, but since it's one of the most unanswerable questions humans have, it is still enthralling. Are we destined to die in a certain way or do we have free will and choices? And if we are controlled by destiny, why bother living? Or letting others live...
Yes, this story is gruesome. Yet, I understand why a killer (or tribe of killers) would mutilate a corpse. It is simple communication. "I am so badass that this is what will happen to you if I catch you. Be afraid." And I understand how hard it was to value human life in that time/culture. Death was always just around the corner. The part that made me cry, though, was the story of the buffalo hunt. The wanton killing of the herds of buffalo made me just want to puke.
The second theme is man against nature, or more correctly, nature against man. The imagery that McCarthy spins describing the desolation and beauty of the unforgiving landscape is why I had to read it a second time. Those mountains, deserts, patchy shrubs and open skies drew me in like I just needed to touch them.
The third, unspoken theme for me was the presence/absence of women. This is a man's book. Women appear as caricatures: whores, servants, and in one case, a mother/nurturer, but it's about men. Men who have no compassion (unless you call bashing in the head of your wounded comrade compassion, which I guess it is). Men who have no sense of responsibility. They are not saving for the future, they are not raising children, they are not planning better lives for themselves, they are not building anything or gardening, they are not creating community, they are not caring for each other, they are not loving. Is this what men who live without the presence of women devolve to? Or am I just making my own set of stereotypes?
It's an amazing book to read, in any case. It's visceral. It's hard to let go. It's a part of our shared cultural history that we would rather not hear about.
I love to walk. I try to walk at least 45 minutes every morning. But this is just walking around. It's not going anywhere. It's walking to wake up, get some movement on and have some quiet thinking time. Making a hike is another thing altogether.
There is no going home at day's end on a hike. There is only more walking. There is sleeping, washing and cooking outdoors. There is only the place you came from, the place you are in and the place you will be in next. Even if that place is just the next step. Taking a long hike can be catalyst of change. It's about growth, confronting pain and fears, learning self-sufficiency, and learning persistence.
Many years ago, some friends and I hiked a few days on the AT in the Shenandoah National Park in VA. It was only a few days, but I've always wanted to do more. I'm pretty out of shape now, even with my daily walk (no pack and usually pretty flat terrain), but I'm only 55. I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there my age doing long hikes.
Instead of hiking, I'm dreaming about hiking. I'm arm-chair hiking. As in, reading about other people who have done big hikes. A friend, in fact, is just about to start the trek to Santiago de Compostela. I read a book about that trail, too. I'm so jealous! So, instead of actually starting a hike, I read this book, Wild, about a woman who walked part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The author had messed up her life a bit. She needed to dry out; literally, from some heroin. She was outdoorsy, had nothing else pressing to do, so decided to jump on this hike as an attempt at, well, not salvation, but salvage. In fitting dramatic style, she hadn't done all her homework to get prepared, so there are some painful lessons, such as not actually packing her supplies in her backpack until the very last minute, then realizing it was way too heavy.
Cheryl embarked on this hike as a way of dealing with the grief of losing her mother. She spent a few years directionless and self-destructive because she didn't deal well with her mother's death. Initially, I wasn't very charitable concerning her grief for her Mom. I wanted her to grow up and move on. Most of us love our mothers and some we miss more than others, but really, heroin!?
Then I began to listen and try to understand the depth of the dependence Cheryl had for her mother. I lost my mother when I was in my fifties, with my own children grown. She lost hers in her early twenties when she hadn't yet made the separation into adulthood. Age and level of independence has a lot to do with our readiness to deal with the death of a parent, so I became less critical as I continued to read Wild. She needed this hike and the hike worked it's magical therapy on her.
None of the mother issues have much to do with trail hiking for most of us, but I think everyone who sets out of a journey on a trail for months with only a backpack (and re-supply boxes) is in some ways trying to heal from something or trying to put their lives in order for the next challenge. It was an enjoyable book on the whole. I may read some more about through hiking, and someday I may get off my butt and do some.
Living as I do, without a car, bikes are a big part life. I see people commuting, exercising and running errands on bikes every day. I love the looking at the variety of bikes and the people who ride them. Where I was living in a big city last month, there were big groups (~20) of fast riders in packs along a major bike route. Here, in a small coastal town, folks are meandering on colorful beach bikes up and down the waterfront road. I just saw one that is completely orange, tires and all.
I come from a bike riding family. The last ride I took with my maternal grandfather, he was in his early nineties. All four of my grandparents rode. My father still rides at 83. I've ridden a bike to work for many years. I've been bike camping on short weekend trips. I've been very lucky to have had a bike pretty much my entire life. My current ride is a cheap, heavy, folding bike, but it gets me around. I miss the classic Raleigh racer I had for 35 years, but it didn't fold into my current small storage space and it was hell on cobblestone streets.
May is National Bike Month. Bike to Work Week will be May 12-16, with Bike to Work Day on May 16. If your bike is being neglected, lube it up and get out there.
And just for sheer fun, Momentum magazine is full of great style ideas for the daily commute. I do covet these rain capes. Because, once you realize how fun it is to ride every day, you're going to want to ride to work all the time.
Don't forget to get involved in improving our bike infrastructure. Find out what your town or city is doing to create safer biking. Start writing legislators. Join a bike organization. More bike lanes means more happy people riding.