I Ride With Snoopy

Posted in Prose on August 11, 2021 by 1writegirl

We are two-up on a 125, again. As was our experience on such a small bike in India, we are fully loaded with a backpack apiece strapped onto a makeshift luggage rack (in this case a thick plastic cutting board Mark has drilled with holes to accommodate tie-down straps), a tank bag, and I’m carrying a messenger bag slung across my torso. Unlike our experience in India, this isn’t how we were meant to ride. 

We’re heading from Mark’s small village in Devon to an even smaller one in Cumbria. We recently returned from a 10-day ride on Mark’s BMW R-80 G/S through Wales and over to Herefordshire to visit my friend Pippa and her family. This is the same bike that carried us across the American Southwest on one occasion and the Northwest on another without incident, if you don’t count repairs Mark was able to make himself given the proper tools and the space in which to work. Yesterday, in preparation for the ride to Cumbria, Mark went outside to clean up the BMW and give it the once over, only to announce when he came back in that the rear wheel bearing had failed and we weren’t going anywhere on it. Given that the bike has almost 200k miles on it, it’s only surprising it didn’t break down while we were on it and riding some distance from his home. Wales, for instance, or on the way to Cumbria. 

“We’ll have to take the Honda,” he said. So far we’d been using the 125 only for short trips to buy groceries and the like. “Does it have panniers?” I asked, hoping they were stashed away in the garage somewhere. “No,” he said. “They don’t make them for this bike, it’s too small. I’d intended to modify the BMW pannier frames to fit it at some point but I haven’t got round to it.”

It’s raining when we leave Thursday morning and the forecast is for showers on and off for the next several days. At my insistence we made a hotel reservation halfway, at a small town outside of Birmingham, when I thought we’d be riding the BMW but didn’t want to push it to get there (a distance of more than 300 miles as the crow flies) in one day. We haven’t gone far before I’m wondering if we ought to have planned on three days with the Honda, since we can’t take any of the major highways (or M roads as Mark calls them) because the bike won’t go fast enough to keep up with traffic. 

I also know it’s only a matter of time before we get lost, given Mark’s stubborn refusal to ever use a Sat-Nav device. (Some people, almost certainly blissfully naive and inexperienced travelers, will occasionally reinforce this bad behavior by finding it romantic and saying so. I, on the other hand, find it maddening. I don’t disagree that paper maps are wonderful for long range planning, for looking at the big picture before and after a trip. Indeed, I love printed, colorful, folding maps. But when it comes to the daily ride in an unknown and perhaps alien environment where roads may or may not be sign-posted, it seems to me that the paper map should play back-up to its more modern cousin the Sat-Nav.) Every conversation we’ve had on the matter results in argument, with me sighing heavily and rolling my eyes and Mark mumbling some nonsense about Google sending people down nonexistent roads, and ends with him swearing allegiance to his paper maps (“I’ve always used them and by god I always will!”) while I grit my teeth and fantasize about telling him that he can damn well find someone else to ride with in future. 

We crawl through one small town after another, and soon after we leave Mark’s house, I’m already looking forward to stopping for the night. It’s 10:45 am. Traffic, crosswalks, and red lights take up so much time that we can’t afford to stop once an hour or so for five minutes to stretch our legs, something I really need. Making frequent breaks even more unlikely is the fact that with the bike piled so high with our stuff, I can’t climb on and off by simply swinging my leg over the back, rather I have to find a place to stand at least as high as a curb and preferably higher, from which to launch myself up and over the seat. Before we set off, I reminded him of this, and stressed the need to stop only where there’s that an elevated surface at my disposal. As it is, with an inseam of barely 29 inches, I struggle every time. That afternoon, Mark pulls off in the sloping gravel parking lot of a cafe where we hope to take a break from the lashing winds and rain with coffee and a snack. As I look down at the faraway, uneven ground, he chirps “Can you hop off please?” Taking a deep breath, I slide down the left side of the bike but can’t get my right foot over the seat. I pull, waiver, then begin to tip. “Shit,” I say aloud, knowing what’s coming and that I can’t stop it. Next thing I know I’m on the ground, with my messenger bag wedged under my back. I crawl onto my hands and knees, stumble to my feet, and glare at Mark. His eyebrows are threaded together in concern as he reaches out and pats my arm. “Ooh, are you okay?” he asks, getting off the bike. I mutter that I’m not hurt beyond a sore palm where my left hand hit the pavement, then we walk up to the café door only to find out they closed for the day approximately seven minutes ago. To his credit, he solicitously asks after my welfare from time to time the rest of the day.

Friday morning brings rain yet again, and it worsens as we ride. We lost close to an hour yesterday when the road signs Mark was following disappeared and we ended up riding far beyond what should have been our turn off. I fear more of the same today as he struggles to read his written notes, gradually leaking onto his maps pressed down under the opaque rain cover wrapped tightly over his ragged old tank bag with its broken zipper. Our route today is less straightforward, with more and smaller roads to find and follow.

The Honda 125 ready to go, Day 2

By late afternoon, I’m exhausted. It occurs to me that Mark must be even more tired, considering that he’s doing the driving, the weather is crap, and he has no windscreen (“I tried a windscreen on a motorcycle once but it made me feel like I was riding in a video game so I removed it”). When we stop for gas I ask him how much longer he thinks it will be before we arrive at our destination. “If we can find the road we need, we should be there in an hour and a half,” he says. I bite my tongue. I resolved before we left Devon not to argue with him anymore about getting lost, maps, and GPS devices. I didn’t say a word yesterday nor have I today, even when he was ranting about the pathetic lack of signs on our chosen route and cursing the local planning commission and their lack of foresight. Mark and I aren’t in a “relationship” – nary a kiss has ever passed between us (and I’m grateful for that, and for the ease of our friendship.) Yet a friendship is of course its own relationship, equally deserving of respect if it’s to endure. Thus there are times when you have to shut your trap if you want to keep the peace.

We get back on the bike and head north. Before long it’s pouring down rain again. Eventually Mark has to pull over because he can’t see clearly. (His motorcycle gear consists of jeans, a waxed cotton jacket that is water resistant at best after years of daily use, a beaten up, open-faced helmet, neck scarf and goggles.) Somehow his goggles have acquired a layer of grime or grease over the lenses that won’t come off no matter how many times he wipes them. We stop in a lay-by for trucks and after watching him scrub futilely at them with rain water and spit, I remember the half a lemon in a paper bag I brought with us when we left yesterday. I dig it out of my messenger bag, hand it to him and after a few swipes of his lenses with it, he can see again. We get back on the bike and as we pull out of the lay-by, I see one of the truck drivers watching us closely, a bemused expression on his face. From the comfort of his cab, he may be thinking what fools we are for traveling on a motorcycle in such lousy weather. Or he may be wondering why we are riding two-up on such a small bike. But I think it’s more likely that he’s noticing what I notice every time I sit behind Mark on any motorcycle anywhere. With his back erect, his neck scarf flapping in the breeze and his goggles wrapped around his old helmet, he bears a remarkable resemblance to…. well, you know.

For your information: our hotel was called Hatherton Inn at Stafford. It was reasonably priced and clean and in a quiet area, with pleasant and helpful staff. I recommend it. We ate dinner at the Littleton Arms, a short walk down the road. They serve fresh local food and beer, and though we didn’t stay there, they do offer rooms. The wait staff was exceptionally friendly. Prices were average. I recommend this place too.

The Cicadas Are Singing

Posted in Meanderings, Prose on June 15, 2021 by 1writegirl

It’s mid-June in Baltimore. My father meets me at the Light Rail stop in his little white Yaris. The air is humming with the sound of insects, I’m dripping with sweat and off in the distance I hear the crack of thunder. I haven’t slept in over 24 hours but at this moment I don’t feel tired. At this moment, after more than a year of forced confinement and brittle isolation, I feel like I’ve just opened my lungs after holding my breath for as long as I possibly could.

Over the next ten days I read a lot, de-clutter my email inbox, and accompany my brother on a few local errands. I walk when the weather allows – it’s hot and humid or pouring rain for the most part – and enjoy being cooked for each evening. With the exception of one meal which my father allows me to fix, he insists on doing the cooking. I want to say “Let me do it,” to give him a break, but it is clearly something he enjoys doing, and I remind myself that loving someone isn’t expressed solely by taking care of them; it can be an act of love to allow them to take care of you, too. At night, after Dad goes to bed, I take the opportunity to catch up with my brother about anything that he hasn’t mentioned in our regular Skype chats. 

Mostly, though, I talk with my father. He looks exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him, right before the pandemic took hold of our nation. He’s 91 now and while he’s in excellent health both physically and mentally, with more stamina and range of activities than many people twenty years his junior, nobody needs to tell me how tenuous a hold any of us has on life. I am mindful, every minute of every hour of every day that I’m here, how precious this time is. How it could be the last I ever have with either one of these people who mean so much to me.

I rise earlier than usual each morning, and since my brother is a late sleeper, my father and I have the house to ourselves. As an introvert living alone, I’m used to talking to other people infrequently. Entire days pass by at home during which, if I talk at all, it’s to myself. I used to think that meant I was going crazy, especially in the immediate aftermath of Jackson’s death. Now I don’t think about it one way or another, or even care. 

We talk about many different things, past, present and future. In short bursts we share news, memories, plans and thoughts. Mostly thoughts. I used to hold back with him, afraid to disagree or stir up conflict. I have always avoided conflict, though I’m slowly learning that sometimes it should not be avoided. Sometimes it’s important to face it. I also used to be afraid of incurring his disapproval. Like most people, I grew up wanting and needing my parents’ approval and the times I didn’t get it, I blamed myself. Later in life I blamed them. Even later, I stopped seeking it. That, I think, is one of the most freeing feelings there is, to look inward rather than outward for assessment of what, why and how you are doing with your life. To be the decider of if it’s enough, if it’s healthy, focused, successful or right. My father and I seem comfortable with each other these days, accepting of who we each are and not trying to change the other, but it’s taken most of my life to get here. Perhaps as a result, I listen with a different ear now, trying to hold on to everything whether I agree or not, like it or not. I want to remember everything, because when he’s gone I will need these memories to sustain me. My well feels dangerously shallow of late.

At night I sleep with the windows open, though the house has central air conditioning that comes on when the temperature rises above 80 degrees. I like the smell and feel of the fresh air, but there’s another, even more primal reason I do this. Right now Baltimore is replete with cicadas. They fly through the air in singles, pairs and swarms, landing on any available surface. Birds and squirrels feast on them. People flick them off their shoulders and arms, step on them, swat them away or even run from them. In thickly wooded areas, their roar is all you can hear. I read of clever ways creative chefs have come up with to integrate them in recipes. I overhear some people bemoaning their existence, impatient for them to be gone. 

I lie in bed and think back to seventeen years ago when they last appeared, then to seventeen years before that, and finally to seventeen years before that. I remember what I was doing, where and with whom on each occasion for those few weeks, though the pictures get fainter with each leap backwards. I am overwhelmed with tenderness for the people I see there, then sorrow for those who are now gone forever: my mother, my grandparents, my son. But I’m filled with something else too. An army of insect nymphs lays hibernating in the earth for precisely seventeen years then bursts forth en masse into the atmosphere to pack as much living as possible into a few brief weeks before dying. Seventeen years later another generation does the same, and again and again and again this precise and complex wonder repeats itself. If this isn’t a reason for hope, I don’t know what is. 

Listening to them is like listening to a disorganized but passionate chorus, every voice competing to be heard, loud and sweet and discordant all at once. I lie there and take it all in, feel what I feel, know what I know and accept what I don’t, which is so very much more than what I do. Perhaps I’ll hear this familiar sound again seventeen years from now, or perhaps this is my last time. In either case, I won’t be here, with two of the people I love most in the world. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and bookmark this moment in my life.

For the Sake of Reason

Posted in Prose on December 11, 2020 by 1writegirl

Like many people who thrive on travel, I have been restless. Okay, thrive may be an overstatement in my case. But the point is, every day it gets stronger, this pull toward the road, toward movement and change of scenery. I’ve been watching Michael Palin travel videos, Nature videos on PBS, and reading my favorite international authors, imagining myself wandering through their descriptive, exotic settings. But it’s not enough. So a few weeks ago I decided it was time to begin, however tentatively, planning a trip. Who knows when I’ll be able to get a Covid vaccine; I’m at the end of the line according to the predictors, so spring is likely to be the earliest unless availability increases beyond current expectations.

I’ve traveled almost exclusively alone since 2014 with the exception of my motorcycle travels (with several people but most recently and most often with Mark). Mark has been to every continent on the planet and a majority of its countries, so he isn’t especially keen to revisit his old haunts, preferring instead to go to new places like Bhutan and Japan. (He hasn’t been to Central America so that is a place we may yet visit together.) That leaves me with a lot of ground to cover on my own.

So I began looking for another travel companion or two for some of my destinations. My dearest friends have careers, relationships and/or children, all stumbling blocks to joining me for more than a week or two somewhere. This leaves me with one alternative: meeting someone new. This is a tricky undertaking for me. I’m not looking for a romance, short or long term, and in case you don’t already know this about me, I’m one of those people who generally prefers the company of animals and plants to other humans. I’m shy, introverted, and insecure, acutely aware of the ways I no longer fit in, and unsure if I ever did. My reason for wanting someone to travel with on occasion is a matter of practicality above all else. There are places where women are safer in numbers (let’s face it, those places where this isn’t the case, at least to some degree, are vastly exceeded by those where it is). The cost of accommodation is halved if you have a companion, meals can be shared, as can excursions or activities (snorkeling, rafting etc) that cater to couples and groups. I rarely experience loneliness as a result of being solitary; my bouts of loneliness are primarily rooted in Jackson’s absence and therefore internal. I can be in a room full of people and feel devastatingly alone. But there is no denying that it’s helpful to have a co-planner, someone to take the load off when I’m tired, to suggest activities when I don’t have the energy to research, and to be a buffer when I don’t want to make connections with others around me. And at the end of the day, it sometimes feels good to have someone to tell about some new experience, or better yet someone with whom to share the experience itself. There is undoubtedly some truth to the adage about the power of shared experiences.

I found several websites devoted to the search for a travel companion, but the first few I came upon either charged a fee or, upon perusing the listings, felt too much like a dating website. Then I read a blog post by a woman who recommended a site exclusively for women. By taking men out of the equation, the likelihood of mistakenly choosing someone looking primarily (covertly) for sex is reduced. I read a few profiles and saw three or four women who, at face value, looked to have travel styles and personal qualities that might be compatible to mine. I composed a profile and sent out inquiries to these women.

I received positive replies, and we began correspondence. I’d mentioned my reasons for traveling in my profile on the website and disclosed Jackson’s death in the process, figuring it was best to get that out of the way and in the open from the start, so that anyone who was innately uncomfortable with grief would have an automatic out before ever taking a step in. One woman wrote to say how sorry she was about what happened, and said something to the effect of not being able to imagine how difficult these past few years had been. I wrote back and thanked her for her sentiments, and asked her some questions about her travel goals and time frame, and her life in Nevada. In her next email she answered my questions, then related to me that her car had broken down on Thanksgiving morning as she was preparing to drive to San Diego to spend the holiday weekend with her son and his family. She went on to say that she wasn’t bothered by the breakdown because she interpreted it as a “sign” that she shouldn’t make the trip and concluded with the ever childish, always banal and for me, anger-triggering bromide: “I believe everything happens for a reason.” 

She was talking to someone who had experienced the death of their child, who had told her so, and to whom she had one day prior expressed her sympathy. How did she expect me to interpret that remark? I know she wasn’t trying to hurt me. I don’t think she even stopped to think how I might hear, “Your son’s death happened for a reason,” but I can only conclude that she thinks this is the case. She had just said “everything,” had she not? That is the nature of these toxic panaceas, they address it all, from broken down cars to death. 

I could write an entire essay on the casual brutality (albeit unintentional in most cases) of that one sentence and indeed have written an entire essay on that sentence and a few more like it (see the link for “Don’t inject your religious beliefs into my grief” on this blog), but the gist of my antipathy to that kind of blanket and simplistic thinking is this: It isn’t really thinking. It’s a substitute for thinking, and when used in reference to trauma someone else has endured, it minimizes the suffering the person is experiencing. In the case of a death, it goes on to trivialize the life they are grieving for by implying that it wasn’t important enough to be spared, that their death was perhaps a punishment, or that it is meant to teach someone (presumably the listener) a lesson that they must have needed to learn. That there is a “reason” obviously presupposes some force (“God”, “the universe”) to which the speaker has chosen to assign prescience and omnipotence, a force which controls everyone’s destiny: every second of every minute, every thing good, bad and indifferent, that happens in the lives of all 8 billion people on the planet and, by extension – unless only humans are so lucky – the lives of all the animals, birds, fish and insects (of whom there are 10 quintillion. Yep, that’s 18 zeros.) Maybe even plants. After all, they’re living too. The bottom line is it’s dismissive, it blames the victim, it imparts not a scintilla of knowledge nor does it accomplish anything except to make the speaker feel better and the listener feel worse. It is a non-thinking person’s answer to anything and everything, a lazy way out of addressing and reckoning with anything, good or bad, which they don’t understand or for which there is no reason – only a cause and effect chain of events that brought about the event in question, which they may never be privy to – from the breakdown of their car on the day they were hoping to travel, to the death of a loved one and everything in between.

I refrained from replying immediately, instead taking the day to decide whether to write back and ignore it, write back and address it, or just cease communication and hope she’d get the point. The only choice that felt right was the second. I’m gentle by nature and I have always avoided conflict if possible, but I also value honesty and one of the things that’s changed about me since 2014 is my lack of patience for listening to drivel. It’s a liability, I realize, and it has and will continue to cost me.  

I tried to be tactful, but I don’t know if I succeeded. I explained that she had offended me with her offhand remark, offering a watered down version of the above, and asked her to please think carefully about saying such a thing again, to perhaps even reflect upon what such a statement actually means, and why she has chosen to adopt such a theory. I concluded by saying that we may be different enough in world view that we wouldn’t make good travel companions.

I half expected her to write back and tell me where to stick it, while secretly hoping she’d write and apologize. But she didn’t reply at all. I decided it was for the best, but at the same time part of me felt guilty, wondering if I had overreacted. I spent a good week fretting about the matter, contemplating sending another email asking her to just forget it, and suggesting we start over. 

But a week later I am resigned to the facts. I only have so much energy, and I want to spend it wisely and be fruitful. My threshold for emotional stress has been severely compromised by my grief, and I have no idea how long it will take before it begins to rebound. Meanwhile my priorities have shifted. While I always want to be kind and wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings on purpose, protecting my own feelings has become at least as important to me as protecting the feelings of others, and far more important than the feelings of mere acquaintances and strangers. 

So I let it go, and wrote instead to the other three women, revealing with each successive email more and more of who I am and what matters to me. With a bit of luck, we’ll meet up down the road.

Here’s a great article about the recent trend our society has fallen into of mistaking pretty words and wishful thinking for wisdom. It’s brief but eloquent. I encourage you to read it rather than watch the video. 

Don’t inject your religious beliefs into my grief

Posted in Essay, Publications on December 1, 2020 by 1writegirl

An essay I wrote a couple of years ago, published by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in one of their quarterly newsletters Freethought Today. If you are interested in reading it, click here: https://ffrf.org/images/uploads/fttoday/2016/FT_September_2016.pdf

The Brink Within

Posted in Prose on October 6, 2020 by 1writegirl

Lately I feel an increasing sense of unease, as if I’m standing on, or perhaps just near, the edge of a cliff with no idea what lies below or how difficult and time consuming it will be to navigate away. We’re living under the controlling, stifling hand of a noxious virus, fires are burning across California and the Northwest, hurricanes are battering the Southeast, and several people I care about have been ill. One is dying. And that’s just in the U.S.

I suspect many people share my dismayed surprise at the sudden appearance of Covid, followed by its insistent lingering. Every day is a roller coaster ride of statistics and changing prophesies, with a glaring absence of standardized or uniform public policy. We wonder how many more people will die (when will it be someone we know and love if it isn’t already?) before a vaccine will be available, and if said vaccine will have a high rate of protection and a low rate of side effects. We wonder if the virus will mutate and become something even more fierce, more transmittable. We wonder if it will ever end, or is this the beginning of one plague after another our modern, overpopulated world simply cannot, universally, overcome.

The fires lend a sense of doom, of further evidence if we needed any that our world is changing quickly, and not in a good way. For the first time in the ten years I’ve lived here I’ve been impacted by the smoke from any one of thousands of fires, 23 that remain “major” for a total of over four million acres burned in California alone. In the past several weeks I’ve grown used to looking out the window and seeing a peachy-grey haze on the horizon. We are in a pocket of sorts here, or so it seems, affected by the fires but not consumed by them. How long can it last? When I saw the photos from San Francisco I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at a post apocalyptic skyline soon to be my future, and ultimately everyone’s future, as well.

And then there are the mice. Is it the smoke? What would provoke them to come indoors when it’s still warm outside? I began hearing the pitter patter of little feet, and finding telltale evidence in my kitchen drawers of their determination to seek out any overlooked crumb in my clean and tidy home. Twice I found a mouse in my trash can under the kitchen sink when I opened the cupboard door, and both times I screamed and jumped back as it shot up into the air and flew out onto the floor, disappearing into a tiny hole somewhere I didn’t even know existed. I’ve used live traps in the past and “relocated” them to a field a fair distance from here but that didn’t solve the problem. A professional exterminator is not only expensive but when I read the reviews it seems it’s only a temporary fix. Eventually new ones invade. I decided I need to make my home inhospitable to them, so they don’t think of it as an acceptable alternative to living in their natural habitat. I need to put the fear of god into them. 

So I went to Ace Hardware and looked at the traps. A clerk walked by and pointed to a black plastic contraption with a hinge on one end and closed on all sides except the front – kind of like a covered standard mouse trap – so you don’t have to see the aftermath of your handiwork. At least that’s the theory. He said he’d used them before with great success. He could see I was reluctant. “Try them,” he said. “They work. You’ll see.”

I bought two. I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner that night, making sure as usual to wipe down the countertops and table, sweep the floor and take out the trash, then I put both traps under the sink and baited them with peanut butter. I had barely sat down in the living room when I heard a loud snap, followed not by silence as I expected, but by squeaking and the sound of the plastic trap being flung against the floor and walls of the cupboard. I groaned and held my breath, waiting for it to grow quiet but it didn’t, and soon I couldn’t stand it any longer. I opened the door to see a tiny little mouse with its entire body outside the trap except for one hind leg, which was caught tightly in its grasp. It was trying in vain to move to the back of the cupboard, back through the hidey-hole into the walls where I couldn’t get to it. 

My choices quickly became apparent. I could leave it there to either chew off its leg the way I’ve heard a fox will do when caught in a trap, or just die from hunger or thirst, which would take hours if not days. I could pick up the trap and carry it and the dangling mouse to some place like the field I’d taken the other ones to years ago, release it, and hope it didn’t have babies inside my walls serving as motivation for it to make its way back, while at the same time hoping it wouldn’t be so injured that it would suffer and slowly die. Or I could finish what I’d started and kill it in some other way. The first choice was beyond consideration. The second choice was tempting, though it felt like both more work and the easy way out at the same time. And it would do nothing to solve my problem. I really don’t want mice living in my house with me. Hantavirus comes to mind, and don’t mice carry fleas? It’s just plain unsanitary, I know this.

I opted for the third choice. I won’t go into details about it, because it was traumatic enough to do it. Recounting it only refreshes my guilt. Suffice it to say I drowned it in my kitchen trashcan, and it did not go gently into that good night. Who knew mice could swim so well, not to mention hold their breath underwater so long? When it was finally over I should have been glad, or at least relieved, but the truth is I felt terrible. I felt like a monster. I felt unkind.

That night I dreamt it was happening all over again, and I could hear it in mouse speak screaming, Help Me, Please help me! I woke up again and again all night long. The next morning with great trepidation I looked under the kitchen sink, and there was another mouse in the second trap. I grimaced, though this time the trap had thankfully worked as it’s supposed to, killing them instantly. His hind legs and long tail were sticking straight out from the bottom of the trap, rigid in death. I quickly disposed of him in a bag then took it outside to the community trash bin closest to my place. There were now two dead mice in that bin, both thanks to me.

I have listened closely for the sounds of skittering in my walls since then. I have waited for the snap of the traps. Silence. And yet I’m a wreck. I was already on thin ice before this happened. I was already crying often, jumpy and anxious, feeling trapped, isolated, paralyzed, and insecure. Now I’m mourning a mouse.

I think how ridiculous I am. I remember seeing children in India who lived in piles of trash that were infested with cockroaches and rats. I think of the orangutans in Borneo who are on the verge of extinction so wealthy people across the world can have palm oil in their granola bars. I think of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the havoc her potential replacement might wreak with abortion rights in this country. Even Ireland, Catholic Ireland for fuck’s sake, is beyond such nonsense. 

Three days later I remove the empty traps from under the sink, clean them and put them away. I wonder if it could be that easy, or if there are more to come. I really want to believe it’s the former. I’m past my threshold, as my grief counselor gently reminds me when I speak to her about it, like so many people across the country and across the world right now. We have enough on our plates already without having to drown little mice.

Little Rock Arkansas, Part 2

Posted in Prose on March 20, 2020 by 1writegirl

February 2020

Tammy has a booth in the upcoming flower and garden show in Little Rock, so my help is needed in preparing for that. Animal feeding takes place at 8am and 4pm, and Dan has been helping with that consistently since his arrival, so my presence in the barnyard feels almost superfluous. Because the goats aren’t currently producing milk, nor are the bees making honey, I won’t get to milk the goats or learn about bee keeping as I’d hoped, but several of the goats are pregnant, so I’m crossing my fingers a baby goat or two might arrive while I’m here.

During my stay with them, the bulk of my time is spent helping Tammy with her goats’ milk products; schlepping them to the fairgrounds, setting up the booth, answering questions and making sales, and eventually, after the 3 day event is over, transporting everything back to the farm and organizing whatever didn’t sell back onto the storage shelves in the soap cottage. To some extent I help with the animals, but there isn’t much for me to do there except collect the eggs and help feed the goats after Dan’s departure. As it is I’m on my feet all day, eight or nine hours during the garden show, which is considerably more than Workaway policy gives you to expect. It’s (far) more demanding than I’m used to, both physically and mentally, but I remind myself it’s only temporary.

Our conversations, when we have them, consist primarily of Tammy and/or Skip “educating” me about, well, just about everything. If I ask a question or offer a comment about something that I see, it becomes a jumping off point for some political statement. I soon realize that while we have some fundamental values in common (love of animals, a fear and loathing of mega corporations like Walmart, the belief that whole foods are where it’s at in terms of nutrition, for example), they are very much southern Republicans while I am quintessentially liberal California. I look around me and bemoan the trashy country side, the litter that embellishes their neighbors’ front lawns and the entire roadside verge, in moments that take me to flashbacks of India. I’m grateful that where I come from (my county if not the entire state) there are zoning laws, codes, programs and restrictions that prevent this sort of thing from happening, while Tammy prides herself on keeping her own property free and clear of garbage at the same time as she admits, with acceptance bordering on pride, that Arkansas has no codes to enforce. Her neighbors will do as they please and that’s the price they (she and Skip) pay for the lower cost of living, the slight property taxes, the freedom to build whatever they want whenever they want and anyone who objects can go straight to hell. She is a rabid Amazon Prime shopper, finding no hypocrisy in her patronage there while refusing to support Walmart (who own the state, she claims), and her idea of a vacation is not, like mine, hiking in a national park or traveling to a faraway country where she will discover new languages, customs and cuisine, but cruises, year after year, to Mexico or the Carribean. The corona virus features prominently in the news right now since it is no longer restricted to “over there.” Washington state has had its first few cases, and Tammy and Skip’s daughter and her husband are scheduled to embark on a cruise themselves next weekend. 

I try to contribute some ideas and thoughts but soon give up. They don’t seem interested in my opinion, rather I, and Dan, are audience, meant to absorb. Some of it is enlightening, much of it is tedious. Not once do they begin a sentence with “What do you think about…?” I feel like a child, cross legged at the foot of my teachers. A student attending lectures. I give them credit, however, for not proselytizing. Yes, they pray before meals, but they never preach at or to me. Nor do they go on and on about the virtues of Trump and how refreshing he is because he “tells it like it is” or some such drivel. Indeed, I get the impression that they are on the fence politically, and that deep down inside, they really just want common sense to prevail. In much the same way that I do (though I am not on any fence). I’m not sure how close we are to one another on the continuum of moderation, but I don’t think we are polar opposites when it comes to what that means. Neither of us are extreme. I realize these aren’t people I would choose as friends, yet I recognize their humanity, I appreciate their kindness, I feel their goodness.

When it’s time to go, I hug them both goodbye. I’m ready to leave, more than ready to have some time alone, to sleep in for a few mornings and give my poor bitten tongue a reprieve. But I’m glad I came, glad I added this experience to the many I have gathered so far in my travels. Each one paves the way for more, each one part of my quest to witness and possibly understand how other people live, my goal to broaden my line of vision and choose what really deserves caring about in this vast, undeniably interconnected, hopefully not yet doomed, world.

Little Rock Arkansas, Part One

Posted in Prose on March 15, 2020 by 1writegirl

February 2020

It takes me two days by bus to get from Albuquerque to Little Rock. Before Albuquerque, I’d ridden twice on Flixbux and once on Greyhound without incident, but every bus since (entirely  Greyhound) has been late both arriving and departing. Each time there is no explanation given, no apology made. As the woman behind the counter in Amarillo puts it, “That’s just how it is.” We are on the way to Dallas for my third connection in 24 hours when the bus driver pulls in to a truck stop just outside Wichita Falls. It’s barely 6am and not yet daylight. At first he tells us this is a “break stop,” so I stay in my seat, trying to sleep. Five minutes later he announces that the bus has broken down, and everyone needs to disembark while we wait for someone to come and make the necessary repairs. We all huddle inside the building to get out of the cold. I feel like I’m in the middle of a Steinbeck novel.

I miss my connection in Dallas, so I’m almost five hours late arriving in Little Rock. I’m here to work on a goat farm for a week, a situation I found through the Workaway website. If you aren’t familiar with this organization, it introduces hosts and volunteers all over the world. The idea is the volunteer goes to “work” for the host, someone s/he has selected based on interest in the type of help needed, giving approximately 5 hours a day five days a week in exchange for room and board. My hosts are Tammy and Skip, and it’s Skip who pulls up to the bus station to fetch me, having left Tammy at a nearby theatre where they were attending a play. He invites me to join them, but when I tell him how exhausted I am, he takes me straight back to the farm so I can call it an early night. He puts me in one of the guest rooms in their house and I crash almost immediately. 

The next morning I meet Tammy and the critters: three dogs, two cats, 31 goats, 70-odd chickens, two bee hives, a rabbit, a donkey, and a llama. They all, including some of the chickens, have names. I also meet Dan, another Workaway volunteer, who is staying at the “soap cottage” rather than in the house. This is a two story wooden structure up the road behind the main house and outbuildings, so named because it’s where Tammy makes, packages and stores the goats’ milk products she sells online and at events statewide. Soap is her biggest seller, though she also makes lotions, creams, lip balm, shampoo, insect repellent, and a number of other things including colorful soap covers she crochets in the evenings. Dan has been here for almost a month and will be leaving in a few days, heading on to another volunteer situation then back to Montana where he lives from spring to fall. He says he is in the process of deciding if he wants to keep his home there or sell and relocate somewhere that isn’t so cold he feels the need to escape every winter. When Skip tells me I’m welcome to stay in the soap cottage if I prefer it to the main house, I tell him I would, and Tammy drives me up there so I won’t have to lug my bags. Dan is in the only bedroom downstairs so I take the second bedroom up in the loft. The bed is only a twin, but the space is much larger and more open. 

Around 5:30 dinner is served, and it smells delicious. Skip has prepared a pork loin in his new smoker out on the deck (which he and Dan just built over the last two weeks). I sit down at the table but to my dismay Skip reaches out a hand and clasps mine as he bows his head and begins to pray. This is to be the case before every meal we eat, including the two in restaurants. I keep my head up and my eyes open and remain quiet when he and Tammy say “Amen,” but I don’t complain. They are my hosts, and they are feeding me.

Two cats reside in the soap cottage at all times, and they waste no time in greeting me. They are called Bubbles and Suds, a couple of two year old black and white domestic short hairs. They are both playful, affectionate and curious, with one very distinct difference between them. Bubbles was born without eyes. Over the next week I will watch him, observe how he moves forward in every space, from floor to kitchen countertops, with only the merest hint of hesitation in his front paws to alert him to changes in depth. He is understandably more cautious than his brother, but he has adapted so well to his environment that he moves almost seamlessly throughout. I’m told he once fell downstairs from the loft. I am fascinated to observe that, although he has never seen another cat, he does the following just like his brother: uses the litter box, washes himself, purrs, jumps. The one thing he does very seldom, in fact I only witness it once in the course of the week, is meow.

Taos, New Mexico

Posted in Prose on March 9, 2020 by 1writegirl

February 2020

I’m visiting my friend Tyrah, on what I refer to as a public transportation road trip, the first of its kind I’ve taken within the US. It’s easy in Europe to do this, not so much here. I got as far as Santa Fe by bus, where Tyrah and her boyfriend Ben picked me up at the local hostel. It’s the first time I’ve seen Tyrah since 2013, the year before Jackson died. 

They drive up in their newly acquired Sprinter van, which they are slowly kitting out, for the possibility of living in it for several months or a year. Ben is tall and lanky, with shoulder length greying hair stuffed under a ball cap. Tyrah is much as I remember her, and I marvel that she will soon be 40. She has seen and been through a lot in her life, I know this, yet I still see in her beautiful grown face the ten year old girl I knew all those years ago: my almost-daughter, along with her sister Sonya, for two years while I was engaged to their father. My heart aches again as it has so many times before when I recall how we lost touch for so long, and what transpired during those years.

Her old beagle Hank jumps out of the van and greets me like we’re old friends, while a younger, more energetic version of himself whines from within a crate in the back. They introduce me to Otis, then we head over to the farmer’s market and grocery store to pick up some food before heading back to their place in Taos. We spend a bit of time catching up, and they tell me what they like about living in Taos (the landscape, the slow pace, the artistic community) and what they don’t like (the majority of the residents, especially the transplants, are over the top woo-woo). I ask her to explain, and she tells me that time and again when she meets someone new they make some comment about how “the mountain” (referring to Wheeler Peak I expect, the tallest mountain in the area visible from almost anywhere) guided them here, or had plans for them. Which begs the question, WHAT THE FUCK? and leaves me wondering, for the umpteenth time, what has happened to the average American’s critical thinking skills. 

The next day we go to watch a ceremonial dance performed by members of the Taos Pueblo tribe. I learn the Taos Pueblo is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The tribe was never forced to relocate, nor were they put on reservations as so many other Native Americans were. In addition, they have the unique distinction of being designated both a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO) and a National Historic Landmark. They didn’t escape unscathed however, from the white man/European influence (did any? I’m sure not). In their case, the most obvious reflection of this influence lives on today in the form of religion – upwards of 80% of the Taos Pueblo tribe today practice Catholicism alongside their own, traditional religion.

We arrive a few minutes after they have begun to dance. Because Tyrah and Ben know one of the drummers, who specifically invited them to this dance, we are allowed entrance without paying the usual visitor fee. We join the other observers and watch. Tyrah points out their friend. She thinks we should meet. Why? I ask. It turns out his daughter died last summer. She hasn’t told him about me, she says, just mentioned that she had a friend coming to visit. He said he’d like to meet me, merely, I presume, because I’m Tyrah’s friend.

It’s a cold day, and I’m wearing several layers including a hat and gloves. The dancers seem not to notice the chill, many of the men shirtless, their torsos elaborately painted, the women in sleeveless traditional dresses; none of them are wearing warm clothing. I don’t know how long I expect the dance to last, but not 4 hours, which is how long it goes on for. It’s mesmerizing, rhapsodic, and I can’t help but feel like a voyeur, like I’m witnessing something very intimate. They seem oblivious to the presence of onlookers. As it closes, I’m tired just from standing all that time watching them, moving as they have the entire time, yet they are dancing with as much vigor at the end as they were in the beginning. I realize that, while they have a paid audience around them, this wasn’t a performance, they would do it whether or not anyone was watching. For some reason I can’t quite explain, this humbles me.

The following morning Tyrah’s drummer friend comes by the house. I’m upstairs when he arrives but I come down while he’s seated on the couch talking with Tyrah and Ben. He shakes my hand, and we all sit together. I wait with trepidation for Tyrah to tell him what we have in common, or for the right moment when I myself will broach the subject. But the talk is of the previous day’s dance for the most part, and though he mentions his daughter briefly (“I miss her still”), Tyrah says nothing. My gaze flutters briefly to her and our eyes lock, but I find myself unwilling to leap in. It’s been less than a year for him, while almost 6 years for me, yet I know if I confess my status, I’ll cry. And if I tell him, and he asks me when and I give him the date, will he know the significance of this date, seeing as how he and Tyrah are friends? Will he make something of it, claim it has some mystical, spiritual meaning? Jackson died, you see, on Tyrah’s birthday. It could have been any of 364 other days, but it wasn’t. It was that day, and I hate his death even more, if that’s possible, for that reason.

Before he leaves he plays some music on a flute which he has brought with him. It’s beautiful, with a halting, quavering melody. He’s clearly a talented musician, and already in a precarious state of mind, my eyes fill with tears. I stand up as he prepares to leave, and he reaches into his pocket and hands me something. It’s a cd of his music. I’m extremely touched, and again, I trip over my tongue, wanting to tell him, but not feeling able. He hugs me and tells me he feels a connection to me, and I wonder if he says this to everyone he meets, or if he is just perceptive enough to recognize a fellow griever. He puts his email address and phone number on the back of the cd and encourages me to contact him if I want. 

The next day Tyrah and I go alone to a place called Ojo Caliente, about 45 minutes or so from Taos. It’s a resort with numerous outdoor hot pools in which, for a daily rate, you can soak to your heart’s content. It’s a cold windy day which makes the water feel hotter and the air, when you step out of the pools, seem colder. We climb out of one and scuttle as quickly as we can to another, hugging our towels around us, visiting all of them but one (the least warm) over the course of the afternoon. The location is idyllic, with red and orange rock walls towering around us. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a canyon. At one point I look over at Tyrah sitting next to me, breathe deeply and sink down into the hot water, everything but my head and neck immersed. I scan the rocks for movement, wondering what creatures make their homes in this wild place. I see only birds, soaring in and out of the wispy clouds. The contrast between the hot water and the cold air, the smell of the minerals in the pool and the desert plants, the wetness of everything below the surface compared to the dry of whatever is above, the sensuality of it all, sinks into my awareness in one sharp movement of Aha! and suddenly I feel terribly alive.

Later, back at Tyrah and Ben’s place, I’m exhausted, as if I’ve just run a marathon. 

The next day we drive up to the ski resort, high enough in elevation that they haven’t needed to make artificial snow; Nature has provided plenty. It’s cold but sunny, so we walk a bit, grab a chair on the deck in front of one of the eateries and eat a snack while drinking hot tea, then take the dogs and walk up into the woods. We follow a trail as far as we can, then Tyrah lets the dogs off leash and throws her arms into the air. “Go!” she commands, and they do, first Otis, up the hill and back, then down the hill and back, again and again, then Hank too, and we can’t stop laughing. They seem completely enthralled by the snow, rolling in it, diving in it, jumping up and down. 

On my last day, we drive out to the earthship community west of Taos (https://www.earthshipglobal.com/visit-us). I’d never heard of this place until recently. We take a tour and I admit I’m impressed. It’s weird, yes, but in a good way. Recycled materials are the basis for the walls (old tires packed with dirt, bottles and cans) and there are plants, lots and lots of plants, inside the perimeter of the structure that serve several functions: drainage, edibles, oxygen, warmth, and filtration. We learn that the earthship community holds workshops, where anyone can learn to build one of these homes, and that they go all over the world in the aftermath of disasters to help people build makeshift structures like these from the materials they have on hand. They claim to be sustainable, self-sufficient to a large extent, and environmentally friendly. The designs are incredible, some outlandish, many are creative and artistic, none what you’d call traditional. I leave there thinking they’re on to something, and we’re likely to see more of this type of home in the future.

My week is up. My bags packed, I say goodbye to the dogs, then hug Ben, silently grateful for his quiet, calm, easy-going presence in Tyrah’s life. Then Tyrah takes me to the bus stop. I struggle to stay cheerful, optimistic. I tell Tyrah to come visit me, that I’ll be back, that we will meet again; all the things people say when they want desperately to hold on to something precious, but want to seem casual about it, blasé. No pressure. I hug her tightly as the bus pulls up, then climb on board and pay my fare. When I turn around I expect her to be gone, to have returned already to the warmth of her car. But she’s not, she’s standing there just where I left her, smiling at me and waving goodbye. My almost-daughter. Just when I needed her most.

Holiday Madness

Posted in Prose on December 25, 2019 by 1writegirl

I’m in the tiny town of Dunsmuir California, a few miles south of majestic Mt. Shasta. I can’t see it today because of the low hanging fog, a lovely white mist clinging to the tree line. I’m in a B&B that started life at the turn of the 20th century as a general store, then became a bus station, and then an ice cream parlor before being abandoned and falling into disrepair. The new owners, a retired husband and wife, he a cabinet maker she a nurse, have slowly begun to bring it back to its former stateliness and charm. There are half a dozen rooms with high ceilings, wood plank floors, tall wooden wardrobes and antique chests of drawers, and the bathrooms are adorned with deep claw foot bathtubs, painted the same eye-catching color as one of its walls. Each room is given a name; mine is the Swan Room, and my bathtub is gold. I have windows on two sides; facing the main street, I look out to see a wall of green, pine and fir trees behind the houses directly across from us, as far as the eye can see up and up, becoming tinged then coated with snow.

A few deciduous trees on the side street in front of the other window hold on to the last of their red and orange leaves, while some hold roses or apples, stragglers frozen in growth, and others are completely bare, hunkered down until spring.

I too am hunkered down, at least for a few days. The lawsuits I’ve been caught up in since Jackson was killed are over at last, concluded in the form of a settlement. The fact that they are resolved is of course a good thing, but I had hoped to go to court rather than settle because I wanted the parties involved to be exposed and thus held accountable for their actions in a public forum. I felt that was as close to justice as it was possible to get, and settling feels very far from justice to me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. 

Christmas, too, is hard – many people who have lost a loved one, particularly a young person, know this – as is any holiday, whether it’s religious or secular, and whatever religion or none at all you adhere to, that loudly and boisterously celebrates the intimacy of family and the importance of children. These days serve as acute reminders of what we’ve lost or in some cases never had, and if you haven’t managed to bridge the gap, to transition from “had” to “have” to “will have”, it can be a day of very sharp edges. Last year at this time I was in Nepal, a place not unscathed by the western world and its holiday traditions, but removed to a large extent, and this day passed almost like any other day. It was the least painful Christmas I’ve had since Jackson died, because I didn’t have external seasonal noise to compound that coming from within. 

This year Dunsmuir is as removed as I can get, given my resources, from mainstream USA and the hoopla that surrounds this day. It’s a 13 hour (or thereabouts) train ride from the central coast, and the B&B a mere five minute walk from the train station. I know nobody, and there is no cell phone reception. Everything is closed today. If I’d stayed home, I know one or more of my friends would have invited me to join them for the day, but that’s precisely what I want to avoid. It’s just easier to be alone, where I don’t have to explain why I’m not happy, or pretend to be happy, or feel guilty when I don’t get caught up in the happiness of others; where I don’t have to listen to that small voice inside of me that still screams What’s the matter with you? How can you be happy, don’t you understand what’s happened? Not today, when I can’t be more glad that Jackson lived than I am sorrowful that he died. I’m just not there yet.

I get dressed in preparation to walking along the river and up to the botanical gardens on the edge of town. I don’t expect to see anything blooming, but I’m sure it will be lovely nonetheless. I look out my window onto the street, where the only sound to meet my ears except for the occasional passing car is incoherent but very loud shouting. Walking along the sidewalk about a block away is a man with a shaggy grey beard, wearing a sweatshirt jacket, jeans and a thick cap. He stops every few steps to turn around and yell and kick at an invisible companion. A dog, perhaps. I can’t make out a word he says, except for the occasional expletive. He’s very angry, and he’s confused. As he comes opposite my window he brushes something off of his head and his neck, again and again, but he can’t get rid of it. He stops and turns back again to face his unwanted pursuer, gesticulating wildly and fiercely at them to leave him alone. He’s screaming, then he is silent. He wipes his hands across his face, then begins walking again. I wonder where he is going, and if the police will come and question him, or even pick him up. If he has a home, or a shelter where he can go. If his hallucinations are brought on by drugs or mental illness or age, or because of some trauma that he experienced and can’t get out of. I wonder if he lives always in that place.

I stay at the window and watch him till he’s out of sight, though I can still hear his spontaneous bursts of fury, then I return to the bed and open my laptop. There’s something I’ve been meaning to do, and this feels like the right time to do it. I go into my email and click on a link to an organization my dear friend Neysa told me about, called The Children’s Trust, comprised of 21 children who are suing the US government for their lack of action in the face of climate change. They are the climate justice warriors we all should be, courageously and hopefully fighting this battle their elders have led them into. It’s the kind of mission that Jackson would have taken up, so I make a substantial donation in his name. It’s a way for me to take some of the taint out of the settlement money, and at the same time pay tribute to my son in a meaningful way. Jackson loved Christmas, not for the gifts (which of course he enjoyed) but for the spirit of the season. As I close my laptop I wonder if I’ve started a new tradition for myself, making a donation in Jackson’s name to some organization I think he would have supported either with money, time or even just heart, each year on this day.

Outside the air is crisp and the sun is trying to shine. It’s above freezing, but just, and I walk quickly to warm up. I follow the railroad tracks to the river where I pick up a trail. There are few people about as I move farther away from the town. Eventually I stop when I see a large heron perched on a rock in the middle of the river, patiently waiting for a flash of silver skin. I breathe deeply, the smell of wet wood, decaying leaves, fresh water, and as I gaze up at the snow covered trees I’m gently reminded of why I’m still here. Not in Dunsmuir, but on this earth. So far my life has not been claimed by disease or accident or an act of violence. I’m here because of books, because of my travels, because I’ve allowed myself to write about my experience, and because of moments like this, when I’m immersed in and soothed by the beauty that is our natural world. While the care and love of a few key people kept me alive in the year or two after Jackson died, these things have been my salvation, and salvation, different for every one of us, is what sustains us when we think we will never know joy again. It is what we stumble upon in moments of solitude that fill us with peace and thus we keep with us, constants in a transient world, that give us courage to keep going. It is what’s enough until it is no longer enough. I feel it now, and I am grateful for it.

Love, French Style

Posted in Prose on October 22, 2019 by 1writegirl

I arrive in Figeac by train a few minutes shy of 5 am. It’s cold and the sun won’t rise for another three hours. To my surprise this train station is nothing more than a platform. I’m desperate for a cup of coffee but I’m loathe to try and find my way from the station into the town in search of one; it’s dark, I’ve got my heavy backpack and a messenger bag besides, and who will be open this early?

I emailed my friend Enza last night to say I’d text her upon arriving in the morning, but I know already that it will be some time before she and Paul are free to come and get me. They had guests last night at their bed-and-breakfast which means this morning they’ll be fixing breakfast, cleaning up, as well as tending to the animals and doing the usual chores around the place. 

It’s after ten by the time they turn up. I’m curled up on a curb against a light pole in front of the station, on the edge of the parking lot. I stagger to my feet and hug Enza, who helps me put my bags in the trunk, then I climb thankfully into the warm car and greet Paul. It’s a short drive to their house, where after being shown to my room, I crawl into bed. I expect simply to rest and warm up. Instead I fall deeply asleep.

When I come downstairs I discover I’m not the only guest. The paying guests have moved on, but Paul’s brother and sister-in-law have arrived from Marseille. Enza introduces me to Jojo and Françoise, then while they are catching up with Paul, whom they haven’t seen in months, Enza takes me outside to meet the rest of the gang. We go see the chickens first, 6 or 7 hens and one rooster. They are used to people but still run when we get very close. Enza had a pet chicken when she was a girl (“You have to start young,”) and swears they can be affectionate, but you wouldn’t know it from this bunch. Even the old one, Hannibal (so named because they caught her eating her own eggs a few times), scrawny with thinning feathers sticking out at all angles, dashes for the bushes when we get within a couple of feet. Enza fills their food bowl with leftover spaghetti from last night, which they dive into. Over the next few days I will conclude that these are some of the most well fed chickens anywhere. They get to peck all day on insects, seeds and fruit from the nearby trees and chow down at least once on anything, and I mean anything, that the humans couldn’t be bothered to finish, including bananas, ham, bread, fish, zucchini, croissants, and gorgonzola cheese.

Next we meet Monsieur, the rabbit, from the few left behind by the previous owners when Enza and Paul bought this place. Like the old chicken, he looks quite thin, and when he turns around I can see he’s losing his fur, but he’s still very cute and adores being petted almost as much as  he does being fed. I ask her if they ever let him out of his cage to run around and she says she tried, but he won’t go. “Can’t you just pick him up and put him on the grass?” I ask. 

“I’ve tried, but he scratched my arms to pieces trying to get back in. He’s terrified of leaving his cage.” Apparently he’d never been let out when he was young and now he associates the outside world with danger. “If I had more time to spend with him,” she says wistfully. “Maybe I could coax him out.” 

We say goodbye to Monsieur and walk across the road and down to a field where two donkeys are grazing. They are Lola and Lana. Lola is older and has lived here for years. She is relatively docile, if not downright friendly. Lana was acquired right before Enza and Paul purchased the business and still behaves as if she’s never seen a human before this very moment, even though Enza visits every morning and sometimes twice a day, usually bearing carrots, apples or bread. Lola lets me pet her, but needless to say Lana does not, though she does take a carrot from my outstretched hand before bolting off. 

We return to the house by the back door where I meet the final two residents, the most recent additions to the family. They are Hermann’s tortoises (the only species of tortoise native to France) Enza has named Willa and Florence. While they are not exactly the kind of creature one generally associates with the words cute and cuddly, I am enamored of them instantly. During  my stay here I will ultimately be drawn to spend more time with them than the other animals, sitting and holding them one at a time while reading, drinking coffee, or talking with Enza and Paul.

I’m itching when we get back inside but don’t think much of it till I go to take a shower and discover about two dozen big red welts across my belly and on my thighs. Alarmed, I rush downstairs and show Enza. “Bedbugs!” I squeal. “No, not bedbugs,” she assures me. “I don’t know what they’re called, but Paul got bitten earlier too, and they come from outside. They’re in the grass or something.” She gives me a tube of ointment to rub on the bites after my shower.

At dinner I do my best to contribute to the conversation, which is an interesting mix of French and Italian (both Enza and Paul come from Italian stock) but give up after a time and settle in to just listen and scratch my stomach. Now and then Enza and I speak English to each other, and Jojo surprises us by plopping a few English words or phrases into our private conversation when the mood strikes him, which makes us all laugh. We eat pasta with wild mushrooms in a delicate cream sauce, after the soup course, before the cheese course, followed by the dessert course, of course! France, especially rural France, still takes food very seriously and the consumption of a meal is meant, figuratively speaking, to be no less than an extended, intimate conversation that goes on for hours. What, after all, could be a more constructive and valuable way to spend your time? This holds true especially when you have guests.

Enza allows me to help with the food preparation and clean up, but the next night when I offer to give her a hand she tells me Françoise brought the main course with her, and will just heat it up. Enza has made a salad for the first course, and Françoise has supplied a cake for dessert as well. A big pot is on the stove, and Françoise is stirring the contents. “What is it?” I ask. What delicacy ce soir? I wonder dreamily. Enza motions for me to follow her outside the kitchen. “How do you feel about tripe?” She asks. Yikes. I make a face, not a pretty one. “I’ll taste it,” I say, my tone less than enthusiastic. “I don’t like it,” she admits. “I’ve tried it before and DID NOT LIKE IT,” she says, clearly enunciating her distaste. “But it gets worse,” she says, and whispers, “Sheep’s feet!” I swallow hard. “What about them?” I croak. 

“That’s what Françoise is heating up on the stove! It’s a stew, a spécialité of the région,” Enza says, automatically speaking Franglais. “Marseille,“ she clarifies. As if it matters. I put a hand over my mouth. “I don’t think I can manage that,” I tell her, scratching my leg. “Me neither,” she says. “When she phoned to say they were bringing dinner and Paul told me what she had planned, I told him I wouldn’t eat it. But she’s brought it anyway. Now I feel like it would be rude not to eat it.”

I think about it for a minute, scratching harder, all over now. “Tell them I’m a vegetarian, “ I say, but as soon as the words are out I realize that won’t work. There was prosciutto in the pasta last night and I ate that with relish. “Can I be allergic?” I ask. “I mean, look,” I say, lifting up my shirt to reveal my inflamed skin. Enza rolls her eyes and grabs my hand. “Stop scratching!” she chastises me. Then, “Chiggers, by the way.” When I stare at her dumbly, she explains that is the name of the tiny insects that are eating me alive.

Over salad I’m distracted, trying to think of a way out of eating the stew. Finally I decide it probably won’t be that bad, if it has lots of sauce on it like most French dishes, maybe I won’t even taste it. When Enza stands up to clear the salad plates I whisper to her, “Just a spoonful,” and grimace. She nods. Moments later Françoise approaches the table, bowls in hand. She moves from one place setting to another, distributing great big, heaping bowls of stew one by one. She puts mine down in front of me with a flourish. “Et voilà!” I smile weakly up at her. When Enza takes her seat beside me I nudge her with my spoon. “What happened here?” I ask. She sighs heavily. “I know, I know,” she says under her breath, then gives me a look that says, what can you do? and shrugs. I notice with satisfaction that her bowl is just as full, perhaps fuller, than mine.

I taste it. Honestly, I do. I take a bite, in two different places. But it’s horrid. It’s gelatinous and squishy and chewy and gristle-y. I spend the next little while moving it around on my plate, separating it into two or three smaller portions and making a display of rubbing a piece of bread into the sauce. I lick my fingers, and sigh as if I’m full. When Enza moves to clear plates, I jump up with my dish and dash into the kitchen before Françoise has a chance to glance my way. Then I eat a lot of cheese, followed by Françoise’s dessert, which is, fortunately, an uncomplicated apple cake. 

Jojo and Françoise leave a couple of days later, and the table feels large without them. When Enza and I speak English now, I’m conscious that Paul is on the outside looking in, with nobody to have his own side conversations with now that his family is gone. It feels like we’re a couple of naughty schoolgirls speaking pig Latin. But when we only speak French, it’s so bad it’s funny: my accent isn’t too bad because I learned young, but my vocabulary is paltry given the decades I didn’t speak it at all; while Enza is only now, in her fifties, learning to speak it, and hers is the opposite dilemma to mine. I watch Paul’s face, which twitches from time to time, and wonder which really is worse for him: being excluded from the conversation by virtue of not understanding the language, or being forcibly included in a conversation that bears no actual resemblance to the language he knows and loves. I keep waiting for him to put his hands over his ears and start shrieking, “Arrêtez!” or perhaps even “Basta!” to make it interesting.

The night before I leave there is a tremendous thunderstorm. Enza and I stand at the front door looking outside as, each time a sheet of lightening flashes, the patio, the garden, even the field and road across from us are illuminated in a light so bright you wouldn’t know it was night. For all of one and a half seconds or so. Then it’s pitch black again. We each take a picture then declare that with the soft edges and other-worldly lighting, they look like Robert Kinkade paintings.

The next day they give me a ride to the Toulouse airport where I’m Florence bound. I thank Paul for his hospitality and his patience with me. Then I hug Enza hard. Every time I say goodbye to someone I love since Jackson died, the thought flashes in my mind that this might be the last time I’ll ever see them. My eyes fill with tears. When I walk away I remember that Enza is turning 60 next fall and she is planning a birthday party, somewhere in Italy probably. “You’ll come, right?” she asked me. “Yes,” I told her, “I will.” Now, I make room for this thought.