“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
Roaring through the arches of the patio, the wind here is mournful and heavy, almost a tangible presence.
My parents live in the desert, a desert that ambles down to the water’s edge, but if all you knew was the sound of the wind you’d think they lived on the open prairie.
I remember a line in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about women on the prairie going mad from the combination of relentless wind and isolation. How much different were the women who lived here? Were they more resilient? Were they more mentally stable? Or is wind one of those things that spooks even the strongest of us, as it whistles through our hair and tickles our skin.
Outside, it sounds of pan-flutes and empty bottles, of breath and sadness.
And yet, the wind itself brings refreshment, cooler air, fewer insects, even as it stirs up clouds of dust and dries your skin.
If you’re already close to the edge, even the slightest breeze could push you over.
And if you’re not? If you’re well-grounded with your feet firmly planted, does it nudge you toward that precipice or merely tease you with ghostly caresses and wordless whispers?
It’s power and breath and life.
But not always discernible.
“Is the wheat okay?” I asked my mother earlier tonight. I was joking, of course. Her house sits on desert soil, and is surrounded by saguaro cactus, not stalks of golden wheat, but in context my jesting query made sense.
You see, we’re being attacked by grasshoppers.
I’m not sure when the grasshoppers began to arrive in such great numbers, but they form rafts across the pool, the living ones stepping gingerly across the weakened corpses of the dead and dying. They also buzz the windows, and cling to the screens, as if they’re peering inside the house and trying to discern whether or not there’s anything edible to be had.
Sadie, the larger of my mother’s two dogs – roughly 35 pounds of Mexican mutt – likes to eat the grasshoppers. She waits for their bodies to dry in the sun, then brings them inside, and crunches on them at her leisure. Sometimes she holds them in her mouth, biding her time until they’ve reached whatever special state means ‘just right’ to her. Sometimes they’re still alive, and the little legs sticking out past her muzzle are kicking and twitching in their insectoid death throes.
I’m sure there are worse fates than being eaten by a small dog.
I cannot think what those worse fates might be.
In the fourth of her “Little House…” books, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder described the arrival of grasshoppers (locusts, really) like this:
“A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle….”
“Plunk! Something hit Laura’s head and fell to the ground. She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen. Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms. They came thudding down like hail.”
“The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers.”
The grasshoppers here sound like popcorn as they plummet onto the marble patio or plink into the screens or splash into the pool. If enough of them worked together, I’m fairly certain they could open the sliding doors and hop or fly right into the house.
It’s a good thing we have Sadie to crunch them to bits for us.
I hope the wheat survives.
“This morning is drawn in pencil-strokes: the sketch of a cloud, the faintest blush of pinkening sky, the spiny cactus saluting the sun.” That’s what I posted on Twitter, my attempt at a word-painting, since grabbing the phone to snap a shot through the window would have ruined the stillness of the moment.
Yesterday morning, too, I missed a great photographic moment: a caracara bird, a type of local falcon, had been strutting around my parents’ front yard. I’d stepped out back to try and capture the image of this great bird of prey wandering around like a chicken, and as soon as I approached the edge of the patio, it took off from the ground and flew by me, mere inches from my face.
Caracara birds may walk like chickens, but they have the wild piercing gazes of true predators. I made sure to tell my mother to keep her smaller dog inside that morning.
I don’t mind the missed shots. Why? Because I firmly believe being IN the moment is more important than taking a picture OF the moment. For me, a memory is indelible, and a photograph is the mere echo of an event, with no flavor or context.
It’s 11:35 PM on Christmas Eve, and as I write this I’m sitting on the bed in the guest room in La Paz, BCS, where my parents live. We’re in the house they’re renting while they build a new house – probably the last house they’ll ever live in, directly across the street.
All month, as I’ve been preparing for this trip (we arrived yesterday), my mother has been telling me things like “Gari-Ellen wants to know if you’re coming to coffee with us,” or “Jesse is looking forward to having you come to his restaurant,” or, “Patricia said she’s very excited because her sister’s daughter is coming.” (Patricia, in this case, is my mother’s dear friend, and adopted sister. She’s got a heart as big as the universe and looks like Betty Boop.)
I’ve never really felt like I’ve had a hometown. I mean, there’s the town I consider home, Atlantic Highlands, N.J., because my earliest memories are there, and my family roots are there, and my mother’s first home with me was there, but I didn’t get the experience of growing up there.
I grew up in lots of places, really: New Jersey, Colorado, California. And then I’ve lived in South Dakota, California and Texas, during my marriage.
My parents moved here, to La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico in 2000, and at first visiting them never felt like home. When they moved into the house they built, I liked staying in the casita, but it felt like staying in a guest house.
I know my mother was depressed, but I never realized how much until we drove into the development where she lives now. There’s an ease about her, a lightness, that she hasn’t had in years, and that lightness has wrapped itself around her life, extending into the very walls of this house.
She calls it the “Barbie House,” because it’s tiny, but it’s not uncomfortably so – really. But rental or not, it’s the first place she’s lived in, here, that has felt like coming home.
And I realized, as I was packing, and then even more as we made the journey up the canyon, up the highway, from Cabo to La Paz, that I’ve been here, to this funky, quirky, lovely city on the Gulf of California, enough times that coming back here feels like coming home.
I didn’t grow up here, but this year, I’m not merely visiting my parents, I’ve come home for Christmas.
It’s the kind of day – grey, heavy, thick, cold – that would mean an impending snowstorm anywhere else in the world. Here it just means…it’s grey, heavy, thick and cold. Well, cold-for-Texas. Which is not the same as cold anywhere else in the world. Not even close.
I designated today as Baking Day. (It is also wrapping day.) I’m baking stuff for US, and stuff to take with me to my mother’s on Tuesday, and stuff for other people. The wrapping is all for other people, obviously.
On the docket are cinnamon bread and chocolate ginger bread with candy cane frosting.
And then I’m making meatballs, as well.
I feel like my house has turned into Santa’s Bakeshop, and yet, oddly, I don’t feel like it’s Christmas at all. Which is weird. And kind of odd, because usually I’m all about the holidays.
This year, though, I find I resent the intrusion of holiday into writing life. I feel like I have all this pressure to Get Things Done, and I haven’t Done Enough.
I can sleep on the plane, right?
Once again, it’s nearly midnight and I’m scrambling to figure out what to write. It’s not so much that I have nothing to say as that I’m still exhausted from being up so early yesterday, spending the day on a cold hard bench in a chilly courtroom, and then staying up too late again last night.
I came this|close to skipping tonight’s blog entirely, but I’ve been doing so well this month that I don’t want to give up my shot at “perfect attendance.”
(I’ve been less than stellar with the podcast, though.)
So, this is my perfunctory blog post for tonight. It’s over a hundred words, at least.
And tomorrow? There will be baking.
I’ve been awake since 6:30 this morning, after going to bed around 1:30 last night/this morning, and waking twice during the night. It’s now sometime after eleven, so this post is going to be short, and not terribly snappy.
So, why the early morning? Because I had jury duty. I was supposed to have it back in February, but it was scheduled while I was in Mexico, so I asked for a new date. It worked out better, actually, because I was assigned to the municipal court in my city, where the judge was engaging and funny, the cases could have been written by the writers of How I Met Your Mother (the defendant in the case I was actually picked for accidentally answered ‘guilty’ instead of ‘not guilty.’ True story.), and I actually got to have lunch with Fuzzy, something that rarely happens even though we both work from home.
I could tell you all about the case (we were told we’re allowed to), but it’s a story best heard in person, when I do all the voices.
Also, I’m too tired, because, you see, I haven’t had any coffee today. I had too many things to coordinate this morning, the line at Starbucks was too long en route to the courthouse, there was no coffee available there (which, in itself, should be illegal) and by the time I got home all I wanted was either a nap or a hot bath, and some liquor.
I chose the nap, and I’m having the liquor (hot chocolate with a healthy splash of creme de menthe – looks like green juice, tastes like a thin mint cookie) right now, and on that note…I’m going to watch the final Nutcracker of the week.
This blog is in recess until tomorrow.
Earlier this month I wrote about my obsession with The Nutcracker, and that I hoped to see a live production of it this year. As it turns out, I won’t be able to, but I’m watching, as I write this, the third of the three productions to air on Ovation during this year’s “Battle of the Nutcrackers.”
The first two, and I’ve forgotten which came first, were the Youri Vamos version (danced by the Bonn ballet) and the Royal Opera house version (from London).
The Vamos actually combines Hoffmann’s tale with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a really weird overlapping plot. While the revamped story was interesting, I think I prefer the pure libretto, even if Act II is basically pure dance. Also, the German dancers seemed very heavy on their feet with very precise footwork but none of the height in their jumps that I’m accustomed to watching.
The Royal Opera House version seemed very English…I mean, the dancers almost had English accents, and they weren’t actually speaking. But they used the original story.
I’m still watching the Bolshoi version, and may have to continue it tomorrow as I have to up three hours earlier than I’m accustomed to because I have jury duty. I have so much to do, and am almost tempted to just pay the $100 fine and skip it, but if I’m going to ever be in contempt of court, it’ll be for something worth while.
Oh, well, at least the Mariinsky version will be waiting for me when I get home tomorrow. The ballet originally premiered at the Mariinsky Theater, a week before Christmas in 1892, so showing it tomorrow, a week before Christmas, seems really appropriate.
This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!
It was my friend Carmi Levy who introduced me to the phrase tikkun olam, but oh, what a huge impact those two words have had on my life.
It’s weird the way things resonate. You read a blog post about a concept, and that sits in your brain and stews for a while. It marinates, really, soaking up some of your flavor, sharing some of its own. Then you make a connection with someone else entirely, and the first thing suddenly bubbles up from the back of your brain, and you present it to the new person, and suddenly, connections are formed, substantive questions are answered, information and appreciation are shared.
Six or seven years ago, Carmi talked about tikkun olam in his blog, and later that year, or maybe the year after, he did a last minute interview with me for All Things Girl when we had a planned “Man of the Moment” back out.
Five years ago, I was approached by a publicist working with Peter Yarrow, about the children’s books he was publishing, many based on some of his songs (I have signed copies of two of them), and that led to my second time seeing him live (the first was in 2002, for my 32nd birthday), in a special concert/talk at the local Jewish Community Center (in Dallas), and that led to an in-depth interview with him, again for All Things Girl.
One of the things I made sure to ask him about was tikkun olam, and this is part of what he said:
“Tikkun Olam means that each of us has the responsibility to repair the world and heal the world, not alone by ourselves, but we each have the responsibility to do what we can, in our own individual ways, to help heal and repair the world. This is, for me, is the most important and inspiring teaching of Judaism. I firmly believe that if we all devote ourselves to pursuing Tikkun Olam as a central part of our lives, the world will get better and better.”
“In the words of the great moral leader Mahatma Gandhi of India, who changed the world and inspired so many of us, including Barrack Obama, we must “be the change we seek to make in the world”, which means we cannot work towards greater humanity in some organization and then go home to humiliate and mistreat our friends, our family or even our dogs, cats and farm animals. We must truly “live” and “be” the answer to the trials of the world we seek to heal.”
~Peter Yarrow, in an emailed interview with me, Melissa A. Bartell, November/December 2009
Having grown up on his music, and later shared chocolate-covered strawberries with him at a benefit concert, it’s possible his words have more impact on me than they would on someone who grew up ignorant of folk music, and of who Peter, Paul, & Mary were, but an impact they did have…echoing down the years.
Last February, I was at Dallas Comic-Con’s annual Sci-Fi Expo, the most intimate of the three conventions they hold each year. It turned out to be the most intellectual con I’d ever attended, with Jaime Murray talking about feminism, strong female characters, and women in media, Saul Rubinek digressing from Warehouse 13 questions to talk about good works, Peter Weller giving us a lecture on Renaissance art, and Richard Dreyfuss speaking about education and activism.
I stood in Mr. Dreyfuss’s line because his appearance at cons is a rare thing, and because it annoyed me that even when he was speaking about real things, he kept getting questions like, “So, in Jaws, how much time did you spend in the water with the fake shark?” (Okay, that might be a tiny bit of an exaggeration, but only a tiny bit.) I wanted to see if I could get him to engage. (Also, he had a fantastic hat, and we all know I’m a sucker for headgear.)
I asked him what tikkun olam meant to him.
He lit up and we chatted for about ten minutes – not a long time, in the grand scheme of things, but longer than is typical when you’re supposed to be an autograph machine.
I owe that encounter to Carmi.
So why bring this up tonight? Partly, it’s because Carmi asked question on his blog today: What’s the most important little thing that’s happened to you – lately or ever? I answered it in his comments box, but it was a bit disjointed, and I wanted to expand, and partly because it’s the start of Hanukkah, and even though it’s not a holiday I celebrate (we did when my mother and step-father were first married, largely to acknowledge that part of my step-brother’s heritage), it’s one I observe. So, over the next few days, I’ll listen to the Hanukkah channel on the Sirius XM Radio (76 in the car), and I’ll fry some latkes, and I might think about lighting some extra candles.
And I’ll spare a few moments to send up a prayer in remembrance of Bubbie, who grated potatoes by hand to make latkes for us one year, and who loved to hear me sing, and who would light up like a little kid getting the best present ever whenever she sat at a piano and played.
And I’ll think about this concept of healing the world, and consider what I can do better, or more, or differently to meet my obligation, because no matter what religion we practice, what culture we come from we all have a moral imperative to leave the earth a better place than we found it, and as one year is dying and a new one is waiting to dawn, that seems a better use of brainpower than concocting frivolous resolutions.
My grandmother used to sing to her African violets, pet their tender leaves, and encourage them to grow by calling them ‘pretty baby.’ She could pick up a pencil with her toes, and even after her fingers were gnarled with age and arthritis, she was a flawless knitter (though her taste in yarn was questionable).
By the time I was old enough to help in the kitchen, she did her best to avoid cooking, but I have fond memories of hamburgers cooked on the back yard grill, of sun-warmed tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, of Jersey corn, and of being asked – as everyone was – what kind of potato they wanted (white or sweet). Whenever she ate those summer vegetables, she would pronounce them ‘luscious.’
Sometimes, she made baked ziti. Ziti is easier than lasagna because you don’t have to keep the pasta intact, but it uses similar ingredients. Sauce that simmered all day. Meatballs served with it. A blend of Parmesan, Romano, mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Just the right combination of spices to make the flavors all pop in a complimentary fashion.
I never learned her recipe, but I remember the flavor, and over the years, my own version has come closer and closer. The cheese, I think, is what’s wrong, or maybe it’s that I usually just ‘doctor’ sauce from a jar. I remember her adding a dash of sugar to her sauce, but I think I also remember her squeezing lemon juice into it, and that memory confuses me because wouldn’t that just increase the acid?
I made Ziti tonight because the temperature was dropping and I wanted something that was comforting and would provide leftovers. As I served it, just for a moment, I thought I caught the scent of my grandmother’s perfume, just the way I sometimes wake in the night feeling certain that her cool hand was soothing my sweaty brow.
But it wasn’t really her perfume, of course.
It was just a sense memory triggered by making ziti.