Eco-friendly Lessons We Can All Learn from My Great Depression-Era Parents

Recently while reading an article on reducing plastic consumption, I realized that the intent was to sell environmentally-conscious products. While I’ll likely invest in bamboo toothbrushes for the family, since they are biodegradable, the remainder of the products seemed unnecessary.

As I read and thought about our energy consumption, recycling issues, and plastic pollution, I could imagine my Great Depression-era parents shaking their heads at American excessiveness.

Here is what we may learn from them:

  1. Whenever you leave a room, turn off the light. (An oldy but a goody!)

 

  1. If it isn’t broken, don’t replace it! Do we really need a newer model? A new bell, new whistle? Something that matches a new décor or a different season?

 

  1. If it is broken, can it be fixed? I realize that we live in a disposable society and that sometimes it is more costly to fix an item than it is to replace it; however, sometimes a little effort, ingenuity, and perhaps the addition of an instructional youtube video can go a long way (and save a few precious pennies in the process)!

 

  1. If something cloth is no longer wearable or presentable in the kitchen or bathroom, can it be added to a rag bag for future dusting, polishing, wall washing, dog drying, etc.? Do we really need to buy dust cloths or disposable cleaning wipes or synthetic sponges?

 

  1. Reuse bags. Paper bags can be filled with paper and cardboard products destined for the recycling bin. Plastic bags can line garbage cans and wastepaper baskets. Why buy them? Similarly, (and this post-dates my parents!) pretty, sustainable bags for the grocery store are a waste of money and material, if we have already amassed a quantity of free recyclable bags. Instead, use them and/or canvas bags until they’re thread bare. In fact, use everything until it’s thread bare!

 

  1. Most American homes already contain a cajillion plastic containers in the kitchen. Why waste plastic wrap and tin foil if we can stick leftovers into bowls and cover them with lids? Why not use the plastic until it’s unusable and not replace it? Then, better options can be explored.

 

  1. Remember glass? Maybe you’re too young. Why buy individually bottled beverages when water can be poured into a glass pitcher and flavors added or it can be turned into lemonade or iced tea? Glass and other non-plastic reusable water bottle options abound today.

 

  1. My parents were the type who stuck the last sliver of a soap bar to the new soap bar. (They scraped every bowl clean. They got every last drop out of a shampoo or ketchup bottle by turning it upside down and letting the liquid flow down into the cap.) While many of us today now use liquid soap and shower gel, we can reduce plastic use even via use of large refillable containers. And do we really need to buy new bottles of window and counter cleaners or can we make our own and re-use the last purchased plastic bottle?

 

  1. As for plastic utensils, why can’t we start washing real forks, spoons, and knives again, even when we are on the go? If afraid of throwing away the ones that belong to our matching kitchen sets, perhaps we could pick up some odd ones from a local thrift store or flea market? Regarding disposable plastic, we can also ask ourselves – unless they are a medical necessity, do we really need straws at all?

 

  1. Donate, sell, or give away anything and everything that is still usable.

 

I realize that most of us are “whores to convenience,” myself included, and that in relation to some of the above-mentioned suggestions, I’m being hypocritical (e.g. 16 oz. Diet Coke bottle), but I am increasingly striving to do better, and I hope that we all will because, after all, what is a little inconvenience as compared to further risking the future of our planet? And let’s admit it, Americans – when it comes to energy consumption and pollution of all types, we’re disproportionately high contributors! So, let’s do better, and better still!

Flying Over: A Visit to Ciudad de Mexico

mexico-city-2719368_1280

Earlier this month, I had a reprieve from the heaviness of U.S. political chaos via a short vacation to Mexico City with one of my two besties, Jackie Larson. We stayed with a wonderful couple, Minerva and Leo, who were born and raised in Mexico, and it proved both a lovely diversion and a great learning experience!

It was my first time in a non-touristy area of Mexico, and it felt like I was visiting the “real” country for the first time. I did what I always do when traveling internationally and enrolled in STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) through The U.S. Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs. While on the site, I reviewed travel warnings. Ciudad de Mexico was only at a two on a scale of four and included such usual warnings as petty crimes like purse snatching and pickpocketing.

To be honest, my main concern was whether or not I should have a custom t-shirt made to wear in public that, in Spanish, read, “I hate Trump, too!” But I didn’t. Still, I braced myself for at least some animosity. If I had thought about it more carefully, I would have realized that in one of the largest cities in the world, not all white/non-Hispanic travelers would originate from the United States, and it was not as though I wore an American flag on my person so as to be easily identifiable. While I could chalk my attitude up to the U.S. tendency to think we are the sun and all other countries revolve around us, in all honesty, I think that being ashamed of living in a society that is currently led by an administration whose belief system is rooted in hatred and fear has simply made me extra self-conscious in relation to those people being targeted, Mexicans especially.

I am pleased to report that not one Mexican was less than polite to either Jackie or me. For an enormous city, I found the residents to be warm and lovely!

While there, I learned from our fantastic hosts a couple of fun facts worth sharing:

  1. “Huevos a la Mexicana” is so-named because the tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños are the color of Mexico’s flag.
  2. I confirmed what I had once heard, which was that Mexicans answer the phone, “¿Bueno?” instead of “¡Hola!” The origin is likely that when telephones were first installed, the lines often weren’t clear and users answered, asking, “Good?” as in “Is the line good? Can you hear me?” The greeting simply outlived its need.

Although I do not consider myself to be a “foodie,” I do appreciate food and could go on and on about the meals that I ate (particularly the fresh seafood and a sandwich called a Pambazo!). However, due to length expectations for blogs I’ll spare you the savory details and just strongly suggest that you use your imagination and allow your mouth to water now!

53390448_10210619178435718_5317570670983380992_n

My favorite place was without a doubt the Blue House (Museo Frida Kahlo). Even though I was saddened as I grew to appreciate Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist, as evidenced by a wheelchair at an easel and numerous rigid corset-like back braces in her wardrobe collection, I was also surrounded by beauty in each room, in the light that shone into the interior, and while sitting in the courtyard, filled with Aztec-design statues, fountains, and ponds and much flora and fauna. The residence had such creative energy, and I felt such at peace. I was ready to move in right then and there to live and write!

53720072_10210621117884203_8258468094339448832_n

While at Museo del Templo Mayor, a museum connected to a large archeological dig site in which approximately two city blocks of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan was unearthed, I remembered the first time that I traveled to NYC and realized that Chicago was young. Then, later, when I was sitting on a fallen column dating back to the Roman Empire, I finally understood, emotionally, that my country was still a baby. This led to two additional thoughts. The first was an appreciation for ancient civilizations, and how much they were able to discover and do with almost no technology or modern-day understanding of the world. The second was that maybe once the United States is able to extricate itself from the whines and tantrums of the orange-haired infant currently shaking the White House, maybe we’ll be able to right the furniture and begin to toddle as a nation. Here’s to hoping!

#travel #Mexico City #Ciudad de Mexico #Donald Trump

Not Belonging, the Green New Deal, and Milk

more-687241_1280

I just read the Green New Deal. It has been characterized by some politicians as “the toughest opening bid in history.” Yet, political cartoons exist in which it is criticized as unrealistic and something that would drain the United States monetarily.

Just before I turned 30, I got into a jet skiing accident going full throttle, and it shook me up. I would soon need seven stitches on my chin and turn into a walking bruise. A guy that my friend and I were jet skiing with gave me a very strong drink to settle me down. Unfortunately, it did anything but that because I was already in a bad place emotionally – horrible break up with a dysfunctional man who had betrayed my trust in myriad ways, unemployed as a consequence of moving home to my mother’s house, turning 30 while living with my mother, and more. On the way and once home, I cried hysterically and repeatedly screamed, “I don’t belong in this world!” I thought it too cruel.

Sometimes, like right now, I still feel this way.

Call me an idealist (because I am), but I don’t see the Justice Democrat’s Green New Deal as anything but what the United States should not only want to do, but as something that as a world leader, we should have begun implementing quite some time ago.

What has happened to us as a people? As a country?

An argument could be made that dating back to our founding fathers, who were protective of landowners and wanted to keep the non-landowners down, we have been greedy bastards. However, that greed has escalated.

I remember going to New Zealand when I was in my thirties and staying on a sheep farm for a few days. The house was functional. It was not up to date fashion-wise, and the pots and pans and dishes did not match. It made me think about seasonal throw pillows and holiday-related hand towels and dish towels, and costumes for pets, and a gazillion other unnecessary material objects that U.S. citizens possess while people in other areas of the world are dying of starvation and many of our own residents, including children, experience “food insecurity” (a euphemism for “are going hungry on a regular basis”).

 

While portion sizes today are ridiculous in general, I once went to a fancy restaurant in Chicago, and my family of three returned to our hotel room with something like 12 “to go” boxes. And when desserts passed our table, each plate contained seemingly one-quarter of a three-layer cake. It was insane! I will never eat there again.

Maybe it is because I grew up with Great Depression-era parents. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. My mom said that when she was a girl in rural Minnesota, even if a family was low on milk, if a baby on a farm nearby had no milk, the family that was low gave the rest of their milk to the baby in need. It’s called being decent human beings.

When there is undeniable evidence that the United States disproportionately contributes to a problem that affects the global community at such a magnitude that fatalities continue and the doom of future generations is a likely outcome, then who are we to call ourselves a “world leader” if we use money as an excuse not to do everydamnedthing in our power as expediently as possible to not only correct our behavior but also set an example for other countries? In other words, be decent human beings.

Jury Duty: The Rape Trial

hammer-719068_1280

I’ve been summoned for jury duty. When I let a male boss know, he recounted how he’d been a foreman at a rape trial and found it “interesting and educational.” In response, I let him know that I’d also been the foreman at a rape trial, which I proceeded to describe as “memorable.” “Traumatic” would have been a more honest descriptor.

I was 19 years old. It was in Chicago, 1987, and the first trial for the Pill Hill rapist, who was convicted in seven rapes, all together.

During jury duty selection, the male judge learned that I was a student at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, his alma mater, and that somehow bonded us, at least in his mind.

During the trial, which lasted several days, the judge commented on the fact that we were the only jury he had ever had in which the jurors took different seats in the jury box each time that we entered the courtroom.

The trial was ugly. The accused was a poor, undereducated black man from the south side of the city. His confession read as though it had been written by a third grader. He would wait for women to get off of a CTA bus and then drag them into a nearby alley to rape them, using a box cutter knife as his weapon. Photos showed much of this particular victim’s blood soaked into the surface of the unpaved alley.

As luck would have it, toward the end of the trial, we entered the room, and I sat down in the front row on the side closest to the attorney’s tables. The accused had a scar leading to his penis that was identified by the victim and prosecution wanted us to see it, since it was evidence. They made the defendant bare it. I was the one sitting closest to where he stood with his lawyer when he unzipped his pants and pulled down his underwear. I was a still relatively innocent 19-year-old woman and on one hand, I was embarrassed to have to look at the evidence, and on the other hand, felt it was my responsibility to force myself to do so because it was crucial to the case. The defense attorney could not have made the situation any worse when, staring straight at me, he asked, “Need a closer look?”

I must have turned a shade of red I’d never been before.

To this day, decades later, I question the remark. What did that attorney gain from such sarcasm directed toward a young woman in an awkward situation?

When we deliberated to review the case, I was, as mentioned, foreman (now “foreperson”), and we were thorough. We went over the confession and every aspect of the case and shred of evidence available to us to determine this young man’s innocence or guilt. After all, his life hung in the balance.

After doing so, we returned to the courtroom and gave our “guilty” verdict.

Just after court was adjourned, the judge’s final comment was: “What took you so long?”

I’m really hoping for a traffic case this time.

A Book for Our Times: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered

Although I haven’t found the time to satisfy my voracious reading appetite (cue retirement while in my 70’s), I have read more literature this year than in previous recent years. (Yay, me!) Of the novels I’ve devoured, my top pick is Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (Harper, 2018).

I’ve been a Kingsolver fan since Professor Jane Campbell at Purdue University Northwest (then Calumet) assigned her work, The Bean Trees, to a class that I was enrolled in as an English grad student. I can still feel the magic of the young female protagonist daring to strike off on her own to discover who she is and finding both family and greater purpose along the journey. It made me, a 20-something, think about life’s purpose in new ways. Since then, I’ve read most of Kingsolver’s fiction. I find the author to be as powerful as Toni Morrison, yet her words leave me inspired instead of haunted. (Please keep in mind that I’m a HUGE Morrison fan as well and value a good mental haunting!)

Although I appreciated reading Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (Harper Perennial, 2012), in which global warming is addressed through the migration pattern of Monarch butterflies, I did not feel that it was her best writing. It lacked the level of complexity that I had come to expect and enjoy. Unsheltered, on the other hand, exemplifies her finest, as it is both timely and thought provoking.

In Unsheltered, Kingsolver offers a braided narrative set in two time periods, the late 1800’s and modern day, in which the respective protagonists, Thatcher and Willa, are connected by address – they live on the same plot of land, in homes structurally unsound, physically and metaphorically.

Thatcher is a science teacher who has improved his station in life and married a woman from an affluent background. They, along with her mother and sister, have returned to her childhood home in Vineland, New Jersey, a supposed alcohol-free Utopian society based upon agriculture and progressive thinking. Soon, Thatcher learns that he is living next door to Mary Treat (a real historical figure!), a naturalist who corresponds with Charles Darwin, whom he gets to know. Set shortly after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the plot vacillates between the response to evolution by Christians and an examination of women’s roles during the Victorian era. I invested in the characters and appreciated this braid, especially how Kingsolver portrayed Treat. However, it was the contemporary braid that “wowed” me.

Willa (yes, after Cather) Knox is an unemployed freelance journalist whose family is in crisis. She and her recently underemployed husband are sandwich generation, between her husband’s dying father, a die-hard Republican, and their adult children, a businessman and a progressive, returned to the roost and in crisis. In this story, everything from their dialogue, including use of rather surprising Greek idioms by the father and grandfather, to their struggles, to Willa’s thoughts, make the reader feel as if between the walls of the Knox’s collapsing abode, instead of pages in a book. The saga is relatable in that it addresses issues faced by families every day and does so within the context of our current national and global political, economic, and ecological climates.

Without giving away too much more of this strand, I’ll say that it made me consider the answers to the following questions:

  1. What does it mean to be family?
  2. What does it mean to live in a global economy that has an unsustainable model?
  3. How can we deal with the widening divide between liberals and conservatives?
  4. What does it mean to us to live on a planet with finite resources?
  5. What does it mean to live on a planet that is experiencing global warming?
  6. In what ways should we let go of thinking, traditions, and material weight that proves and paves our existences?
  7. How do we need to change our thinking in relation to the above-mentioned questions?
  8. When should established members of society let members who see the world through new and perhaps more focused eyes begin to lead?
  9. What does it mean to be “unsheltered”?
  10. In what ways can we view being without shelter?

Unsheltered is a New York Times Best Seller, an NPR selection for Best Books of 2018, and one of Newsweek‘s Best Books of the year.

If you feel overwhelmed by our world gone mad, give Unsheltered a go. Kingsolver’s words will remind you to breathe deeply and refocus on what’s crucial.

#unsheltered  #barbarakingsolver #bestnovelsof2018

Politics — From: Take Me Away! to Take Aways!

“We’re in trouble – BIG trouble. And we’re heading in the wrong direction,” my bestie, Lynne, said to me last Thursday while we were standing in a B&N signing line to have Barbara Kingsolver autograph copies of her new novel, Unsheltered, for us. The author’s reading and fact that she plans her books around themes – issues – had led us to political discussion. With the upcoming midterm elections, I’ve been pondering politics a lot lately.

IMG_8834

(Let me tell you a secret. I HATE politics!)

I remember being in high school and a friend exclaiming, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I hated the concept. When I think politics, I think nepotism, which is still an issue!

My first job outside of college was as a speech writer for the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. It infuriated me to learn that the ROC was stuck in a no man’s land between the People’s Republic of China and independence. Why does the situation have to be so complicated and unfair? I thought. Mainland China had threatened military action if the ROC declared itself an independent country, yet the Taiwanese couldn’t rejoin the mainland because they didn’t want to struggle under a communist regime. At the same time, many Taiwanese did not want to be separated from their Chinese roots, centuries of ancestry and tradition, either. It was heartbreaking.

I was also disgusted with my boss, who insult the USA to my face every chance he had, yet intended to live out his life in America, with full diplomatic immunity. It seemed hypocritical.

Consequently, when I quit that job to start grad school, outside of voting for president, which was the only political action that I ever witnessed my parents (one a Democrat, the other a Republican) take, I shoved politics far out of mind.

However, there’s no way to be a writer who believes in writing as an agent of social change and not become invested in politics. Working and earning an M.F.A. at an almost all black university made me invest. Attending Split This Rock Poetry Festival made me invest. Teaching at institutions with first-generation college students and high diversity rates made me invest. Becoming a mother only made me invest more. So, in more recent years, I became a protest poet and an activist, mostly armchair but also protests and vigils. I’ll never forget the sad evening of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., when I heard Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, utter the words, “Poetry is not enough.”

“Poetry is not enough.”

It was then that I sensed a change from which there would be no turning back. A change for the country, a change for me.

In May, Highland politician Brandon Dothager, whom I’d met the previous month at a poetry slam, knocked on my door and asked me to become his Democratic vice precinct chairwoman. He was quite persuasive, and I accepted. Since then, I’ve attended Indiana’s Democratic convention, become a member of the not-for-profit, Rise NWI, and of a local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), attended precinct meetings and a rally, and canvassed my and Brandon’s precinct with voter registration forms and a non-partisan petition.

My main take aways thus far are as follows:

  • Change is a very slow animal in part because a lot of difficult work goes on behind the scenes for local challengers to beat incumbents and for change to rise from local to regional to state to national levels. We need more individuals, people with fresh eyes, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and put in the time and energy to make change happen!
  • There exists a seriously problematic division between moderate and progressive Democrats. However, that should not deter anyone from focusing on the vital work that all Democrats should be able to agree upon and prioritize, such as helping to solve climate change, plastic pollution, mass shooting, and health care issues. We need a future. We need to be able to feel safe in public spaces, especially sacred ones such as schools and places of worship. We need for people to be able to afford life-saving physicians’ visits, surgeries, and medications. Planet and people. It’s that simple.
  • The most important step that we can take is getting out to the polls to vote on Tuesday, November 6th. Whether the blue wave becomes a small ripple or a tsunami is up to every single one of us age 18 and over and could mean the difference between continuing in the wrong direction by feet or traversing it for miles over the next two years. And we are in trouble – BIG trouble!

And by the way, if you live in Northwest Indiana and aren’t busy on Sunday, November 11th, from 12-1:30 PM, please join the PDA and Northwest Indiana Green Party for the
“Unite Against Hate! Time to Make a Change!” rally at Munster Town Hall. Please see: https://www.facebook.com/events/353432682058535/

(Have I mentioned that I HATE politics?) Hope to see you this coming Sunday!

How to Leave Your Abuser in Seven Easy Steps

images

I dated a drug addict for a decade, and for a long while, I was more scared for his life than I was for my own. (I’d watched men ruin their lives via addiction from childhood forward. I was sick of feeling helpless.) When I became pregnant, unaware that he was again using, however, his infrequent physical abuse escalated in not only rate but severity. I later learned that it is not unusual for abusers to act out more violently when their partners are pregnant.

He threatened to kill my best friend, baby, and myself, if I had the police remove him from my house. It was then that I began plotting to leave, which I accomplished in April 2005.

Was it the drugs that made him an abuser? No. He was next generation in of a cycle of violence. He had severe unaddressed issues. But addiction certainly didn’t help matters.

In honor of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I present the following guide to leaving your abuser. Abuse can happen to anyone. The stereotype of victims of violence is undereducated and dependent upon their abuser. But it isn’t always true. Read Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner, for instance. I was in my mid-thirties, a feminist who’d encouraged other women to leave such situations, and had a terminal degree and good career; I simply thought that I was strong enough to save someone from substance abuse (a road an alcoholic or drug user must take alone) – in the end, I could only save myself and my daughter.

The most dangerous time for a person who is being abused is when that individual decides to leave. I had a two-month old baby to consider and left as safely as possible. I want the same for others – to escape before becoming a statistic, a click bait horror story title. Please share this blog post. Thank you.

I use “he” in this guide because it is what I knew, but women abuse too.

Guide

  1. Remember when he threatened, “I’ll slice your eyeballs up like onions,” or that time when you were in your last trimester of pregnancy and he yelled, “I’ll punch you in the stomach. I don’t care about that baby!” In other words, remember to hate him — let it permeate you. Choose life—your own. Become obsessed with one thought: freedom—the freedom to never see him again. Hunger for it like your favorite meal. Let it turn your will power into a taut wire.

 

  1. Devote every millisecond that you are away from him toward your goal. Assess your priorities: What material possessions can’t you live without? Whatever they are, chances are he will never notice if those items go missing from your abode because he doesn’t know you, not really, doesn’t value who you are. He’s too wrapped up in himself. The photo albums, heirlooms, family recipes, words even, tucked away, that help to make up you – find a safe place to store them—a friend’s basement perhaps. Sneak them out one box at a time. Electronics, creature comforts, can be replaced. But plan for him to go “postal” when he learns you have escaped him.

 

  1. Call a domestic abuse shelter and make a reservation—a date, time for check in. You don’t want to stay with family or friends. You already know that he will become more dangerous the moment that he discovers you stepped out the door. Don’t let that fear paralyze you, though; it is most dangerous to stay. (It takes on average five times for an abused person to leave the abuser. If you aren’t already on your fifth attempt, cut to the chase and pretend that you are: help reduce that national number. Stop making excuses for him. Love yourself more than you love him!) Don’t expect the Hilton, the Hyatt, at the shelter. Expect covert parking and alarms, Get Smart door-after-door entry, without the funny. Expect dark circle women with fill-in-the-blank futures. But none of that matters because it’s your safest way out. You will find the support you need there.

 

  1. Form a plan, as safe and full proof as possible. A time when your absence will seem normal. Or a time when you know for certain that he will be away. I dropped my abuser off at work 45 minutes away from home and never picked him back up. Make certain that at least one other person you trust knows when you are leaving, just to be safe. (The baby, everything she needed, and I were checked into the shelter before he ever learned that I’d left.)

 

  1. All the while, Yes, sir and How high? him into a lullaby of complacency, so that he will arrogantly assume that he has at long last worn you down. His goal all along. What else could it possibly be—right?

 

  1. Before you go, get a separate phone plan if you share one as a couple. Make it pre-paid, if need be. Hide the phone, hide it well until you leave. Change your mailing address to a P.O. Box. Keep his address the same so there is a place to serve the Order of Protection and, if appropriate, the eviction notice. A free lawyer at the shelter will guide you through the legalities.

 

  1. Lastly, starting in the most remote recesses of your mental attic, working toward the sub-basement, search for the sense of self that you nearly sacrificed seemingly so long ago. You may think it has departed but a particle remains. When you locate it, carry it as you would a newborn, allowing the door to slam, unaided, behind you. Put the car in reverse and drive, feeling the acceleration vibrate from engine to pedal to your being, letting it fill you like adolescent summer yesteryears on a bicycle, like riding on a motorcycle at night, hair blowing in the wind.

 

Snail Sisters & My Camino Family: El Camino, Part II

What I expected: A seven-day solo hike in which I spent the majority of time inside of my head and stopped along the way to sit and write.

What I expected: A community of nice people who would see one another and talk during dinner at the albergues (hostels). Since El Camino de Santiago is historically a religious pilgrimage, I imagined much discussion of Catholicism, with me, the Unitarian, as outsider, only listening.

2018-07-06 10.34.05

What I actually experienced:

It all started after I paid .70 euros to enter the women’s bathroom at Charles de Gaulle airport. I used the bathroom and groomed myself after the overnight flight to France. A woman with long red and pink braids and a diamond nose stud approached as I was finishing up. “Are you walking the Camino?”

“Yes.”

“Would you mind watching my backpack?”

She soon helped me exchange my computer printout for a train ticket, and we talked on the platform. It was her fourth time doing the trek. Seats were assigned, so we talked again on the next platform. She was from Canada, but she and husband had recently moved to the Dominican Republic. Somewhere along the line, we remembered to exchange names – hers was Pamela. Later, she bought me a beer while she waited for the third train and I, a bus. Then, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the medieval town from which our pilgrimage was to begin, she saw me looking at map and sign. “Where’s your albergue?” She yelled across the street.

“Across from the pilgrim’s office.”

“Come with me.”

Pamela dropped me off at my destination, and we knew we’d see each other at Orisson, our albergue halfway up the Pyrenees, the next day.

I entered Beilari just in time for dinner. Our warm, wonderful host, Joseph, had us introduce ourselves and tell the reason for our sojourn; then, we toasted with wine. Joseph referred to us as a “Camino family,” and that set the tone perfectly for the trip to follow.

In Orisson, the “why?” was also asked. Between those nights and subsequent conversations, I learned that while some folks were on a religious pilgrimage, reasons varied: healing from loss was a biggy– loss of in-laws, having been a primary caregiver; loss of a husband to cancer, having become a young widow; loss of first love to breakup; loss due to a bout with cancer. But there were others reasons, too: parent/child bonding – there was even a three-generation family, grandma, mom, and two boys; weight loss; challenge; and perhaps a more general sense of need to move beyond what a person had known and been, to see the world through new eyes. One boy introduced himself and said, “I am nine, and it’s my first camino.” That got laughs. Another child said that he was in it “for the food.”

I bought Pamela a beer the next afternoon at Orisson, and we sat exchanging life stories for about two hours, before having dinner, where we sat with Marianne and Michelle, a mother/daughter duo from Denmark.

2018-07-07 17.00.21

Pamela with Michelle and Marianne (at the Paella Plaza Party)

From day one forth, each proved different. The first day’s trek was the steepest and perhaps hardest with our backpacks. We left a medieval town of Basque architecture and cobblestone streets and wended our way upward through green fields and hills.

2018-07-01 08.21.52

2018-07-01 11.04.30 Day 1: Trek Halfway Up Pyrenees, France

It was hot, it was hard, and we rejoiced that we made it! We awoke to mist below us, tucked in nooks and crannies of lower peaks, sunrise a glimmer above. Day two was gentler but longer. There were memorial cairns, stone storm shelters for shepherds, a shepherd with three dogs, sheep and a sheep bell, cows and a cowbell, horses roaming free, crossing the road. We leap frogged one another alone, in pairs, and small groups. We reached the magnificent peak and took photos individually and together. We entered Spain. That night, we slept at a monastery, where we received a pilgrim’s blessing in Spanish. We rejoiced – we had made it over the Pyrenees!

At 3 AM entering day two, I decided to set intentions for each day. For day two, I was going to let go of the people who had mistreated me and remember how well I’ve been loved and how blessed I am. As I climbed to the peak, I let go of past bullies and mental abuse. On the way down, I stopped, with no one around, and conversed aloud with the universe, thanking it item by item for all of the love and blessings. That moment stands out for me the most. I could cry, just thinking about how fortunate I felt.

2018-07-04 15.54.26

Sophie from Sweden, Jenifer from Canada, Me, and Stefan from Germany, at Pyrenees’ Peak

Days three to seven were filled with forests, lavender fields, sunflowers, vineyards, olive trees, and two smaller mountain ranges. They were filled with additional intentions pondered. They were filled with delights, such as a vino fountain filled daily by monks and a boy who sells lemonade and has his own pilgrim’s stamp.

2018-07-07 07.01.31

 

2018-07-07 09.11.46

But here’s the thing: instead of finding myself withdrawing into myself, I met and came to appreciate my Camino Family. We started a What’s App thread and kept each other abreast of plans, shared progress, and provided useful tips. My best night with them was in Pamplona. Pamela and I decided we should have a pinchos y cerveza café crawl. It was akin to being a carefree teen again, meeting people at different venues and en route, sharing and laughing together. Only this was an international community of individuals from Germany, France, Denmark, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and other countries, all ages, all walks of life. We hugged each other in greeting and good-bye as if we’d known one another since childhood.

2018-07-12 07.59.58-5

Pamela and I walked together from the latter half of day two until I reached my destination, Los Arcos. Through a sweet woman, Marie from France, who said we were “like the animals who wore houses on their backs,” we became the “snail sisters.” We’re about the same height, which meant our legs were shorter than most other hikers. But we always arrived at our day’s destination! We’d lock step without trying and walk in sync for hours. About the same age, we shared our life stories and learned there were many parallels. Conversations ran deep in still waters.

2018-07-08 05.39.20

And we laughed. And laughed. We sat on boulders and greeted people as they passed: “Bonjour!” “Buenos dias!” “Buongiorno!” We luxuriated on the roadside, lying back upon packs, asking hikers, “Cookie?” as they passed, offering our Spanish lime sandwich treats. One Asian couple, who we leap frogged with daily, always smiling when we did, were among those who stopped for cookies and a chat.

The night before our Los Arcos, Spain, arrival, and my 50th birthday, Pamela announced on our text thread that the next night there would be a “paella plaza party.” That morning, a birthday text from Marianne and Michelle came, filled with Danish flags, and when we saw them at breakfast, the duo handed me a present, a Camino shell bracelet, which I’ll enjoy always. As Pamela and I walked through woods, we suddenly heard from behind, “Happy Birthday to you…” Sophie from Sweden and a married couple from the United States hiked quickly up to me singing, hugged me, and went on their long-legged way. It was the nicest birthday “attack” I’ve ever received!

2018-07-07 07.29.27

At our albergue later, a woman I’d never seen before asked if it was my birthday. The news had traveled up and down the Camino. I said yes, and she wished me a happy birthday in French and did that warm European two-cheek kiss thing. It was lovely, as was the paella plaza party that night, with my Camino family. A warm Japanese man, who was 69 and walked at a good clip, took our photos and had us write down our names, as if to make them indelible in memory. And then I said good-bye.

2018-07-07 13.29.52

The universe gives you what you need. I thought that I needed reflection and writing time, and I had some, but it gave me more – in a world gone mad and more specifically, in a country, the USA, that I understand less each day, it restored me via beautiful people and much joy.

I walked 92 miles in one week. I’ve heard tell that the first leg of the Camino breaks you down physically, the second, mentally, and the final leg puts you back together both physically and mentally again. I did the first leg, and it was a physical challenge: I had knee swelling, heat rash, and cankles (swollen ankles) all for the first time. But I did it! I would love to return to finish the trek, from Los Arcos to Santiago, and then on to the west coast, to Finesterra, if time, health, and money permit. (And Pamela and I have also discussed walking the Portuguese Camino together.) I’ve kept track of my Camino Family by text thread and smiled and mentally cheered and cheered as they’ve reached Santiago, many in groups formed along the road. But in case the stars don’t align, don’t allow for such further adventure, I have the memory of this trek to embrace for the “second half” of my life. Just writing about it, I am awash in peace.

#elcaminodesantiago #Camino2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Solo Woman Journey: El Camino, Part I

20045610_955789441226917_2205749176868564449_o

About fifteen years ago, my bestie, Jackie, gave me The Camino by Shirley MacLaine for Christmas (after pre-reading my gift and writing a note in one passage! Besties can get away with that). I read most of it but MacLaine got a little too “out there” for my tastes, and I put it down. Still, El Camino de Santiago stayed in the back of my mind. Reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, in more recent years, served to rekindle my enthusiasm.

I like to challenge myself in new ways. There should be no plateau in life. I’ve read articles on centenarians about whom were reported such things as, “Arthur started playing video games when he was 98.” What isn’t talked about much beforehand is that in the late 40’s and early 50’s, increasingly, unfortunately, individuals start becoming seriously ill and some die. Juvenile diseases and poor lifestyle choices catch up with the body; cancer sets up shop and vies for a monopoly. I am blessed enough to be healthy so far (knock on wood), but I “put no trust in the ‘morrow.” I wanted (dare I say “needed”?) to have this one thing to call my own before facing the challenges that the next decades hold with family, professionally, and personally.

Globally, solo woman travel is on the rise. While on El Camino (the French Way), a man from Germany commented on how many women were on the trek and that a number of us were traveling alone. One book I read had cited that 47 percent of pilgrims on El Camino were female, but that was from 2014, and we all agreed that the percentage had likely risen. Our Camino group was definitely female dominant. Even so, some people commented to my husband, Mike, beforehand, that they were surprised he was “letting me” go alone. He didn’t dignify those remarks with responses. If Mike felt he were “letting me” do anything, he wouldn’t be my husband. (Second husband, I might add.) Instead, he was 100 percent supportive. I did trip planning, prep, and training on my own. It took about a year of reading; purchasing backpack, hiking shoes, tickets, etc.; and training (toward the end). (A HUGE thank you to the family and friends who loaned and/or gave me money, books, supplies — e.g. blister kit — and trained with me, namely: Michael Poore, Bill and Wanda Lukens, Jackie Larson, Lynne Benson, Barbara Shoemaker, and Debbie Murphy.)

Away I went on June 29th!

For a long while, I’d imagined letting go of haunts on the trail, the largest of which involved physical and sexual abuse. Two years ago, I thought that I would be making a humongous professional decision while hiking — whether or not to stay in my academic position. As it turned out, I’d already done a great deal of the abuse processing, and I made the decision to leave my job last August and did so in December 2017. That said, I envisioned trekking alone and withdrawing into an intense inner journey. I craved that time unplugged so that I could live in the silence surrounding my mind and hear myself think for a change. I could actually see myself plopping down on a rock to write memoir insights. I also prepared for potential hip pain and bad blisters.

One thing I’ve learned, however, is to embrace the organic experience.

My pilgrimage proved nothing like what I’ve described above.

Tune in next blog post for a lowdown on the Snail Sisters and much, much more!

 

 

 

When Did Your Childhood End?

Last fall, a former creative writing student wrote about when her childhood ended, which prompted me to ask, “When did my childhood end?” My first thought was as it had always been – when I was 16, the day that my dad died. I’d stepped up and attempted (emphasis on attempted) to take over his responsibilities to help my mom at that point.

But when I reflected further, I lost my childhood two years prior, right after I’d turned 14. I was working for a former teacher on Saturdays. My dad was a dying alcoholic, and we weren’t getting along (understatement). I had started to think of this teacher as a “replacement father.” I would arrive at the school before his students did to make certain that the building was secure; there had been break-ins – gram scales stolen from the lab for measuring cocaine. I’d also helped with set up for a day of learning.

He started holding my hand as we walked through the halls together. That was okay. My dad had held my hand for years when we’d walked places. Then, out of nowhere, he proposed teaching me photography in the milk room, which was essentially a large closet. I said sure; I was always up for a new learning experience, and I so wanted to please him. It was nice to have someone’s approval because goodness knows that I no longer had my dad’s.

The second Saturday that we were in the milk room, I was crying hard because my father and I had had a terrible Friday night. I no longer recall which incident.

The teacher and I were developing photos from negatives of his wife, who was sitting on a park bench, holding an infant – one their six children. It was then that he French kissed me, slipped his hand beneath my lavender jersey to cop a feel, and started sticking his hand down the front of my jeans. It was my first real kiss. (I hate “write about your first kiss” prompts to this day. They make me shudder.)

Here I was weeping because I was losing the father I had loved (at one time, “Daddy’s Little Girl”) to alcohol and cancer, and his surrogate was making sexual advances. Finally, this fact kicked in, and I stopped the progression of his hand just as it reached under my bikini panty line. “I love you,” he whispered. “We can go as slow as you’d like.”

Students arrived shortly thereafter, and I left the school early, using the excuse that I had to babysit. I walked home through two towns, sun reflecting on snow that had fallen on the roof of a yellow house. Each step sounded crisp. Tears wet my cold cheeks. I had never felt so alone or betrayed.

I didn’t tell my parents, and the two people I did tell, I swore to secrecy.

I would later learn that he’d been doing this to female students for at least 16 years.

Occasionally his wife, also a teacher, but at a different school, graded in the teacher’s lounge. Whenever I had passed the room and said hello to her, she’d reciprocated stiffly, despite that I was always polite and cheery to her. I was puzzled by her coldness until I eventually put two and two together: she knew what he was doing all along and had allowed it to continue. She’d considered me the problem, the enemy.

When I was a high school sophomore, I went to him during school hours. He was on his free period, and I asked to speak to him privately. He took me into the storage room for chemicals, beakers, and Bunsen burners. There, I threatened to tell on him. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Who do you think they’d believe – you or me?”

It was 1983. I was a lower-middle class, 15-year-old daughter of a dying alcoholic. He was a well-established, highly respected, and popular teacher. They’d have believed him.

I’m thankful that today, if a high school girl made a complaint about the sexual conduct of a teacher, it would very likely be investigated.

I felt such shame that I was sexually molested (a word that wouldn’t enter my vocabulary for several more years), that my self-esteem, not good at that time, plummeted. Depression. Anorexia. My grades dropped.

I’ve had significantly worse experiences happen to me since then. Are the incidents related? Somehow, I think that what happened in that dark room was the first link in a chain for me, and at the same time, a manacle attached to women extending back to pre-recorded history.

I will turn 50 next month.

My path diverged the day I lost my childhood, and those lips and hands, that touch, never left.

#metoo