Communal Keeping

Digital Collage: What Light is ThisWhat Light

What gleaming and pellucid light is this

That dances from the darkness into view,

As gently kind and tender as a kiss,

Drawing the violet warmth out of the blue—

What is this gracious, guiding, welcome light

That, numinous, its blessing shines on me

And bids me then, so warmed and kindled bright,

In turn to shine? ‘Tis Hospitality.

What, then, the lantern lighted as we part

To guide and keep us as we wander on,

No longer cold and dark as at the start,

Though time find us all yet asunder, gone—

What is the lamp that makes each soul a sun

And lights the path to gather us anew

From ends of earth, that beckons everyone

Back home? It’s Love that lights the whole way through.

There’s comfort in the midst of darkest night

Where Love and Hospitality alight.

All Aflutter

Photo: Sneaky Bird

Photobombed by some kind of small heron (I think), I didn’t even see this beauty until I enlarged the photo and found it in the very bottom corner of what was already a pretty woodland scene by the beach in Puerto Rico. Sneaky little fella.

Birdwatching was one of those pursuits that mystified me when I was much younger. Ignorant youth! I always appreciated that birds looked pretty in a general way, or were exotic, or sang wonderfully or had intriguing nesting and feeding habits, but I suppose I rarely went beyond that in my appreciation of the creatures.

I can’t even quite say when that shallow attitude deepened. While I’m still far from a skilled or knowledgeable birder, let alone an ornithologist, I think I can claim to have gotten smarter somewhere along the way, to the degree that even in places I visit constantly and expect nothing new, I am almost always on hopeful watch for birds of any kind.

Never mind that I can still misidentify a female Cardinal as a Cedar Waxwing at remarkably close quarters and be endlessly fooled by Mockingbirds‘ varied calls and songs as being other birds’ entirely. I have fallen in love with birds and observation of them much more as I age. Their unique beauties set my heart beating a little bit faster. Opening a window to hear an avian chorus in full and tuneful counterpoint opens my soul as well as my ears. Seeing the characteristic wing shape of a gleaming vulture against the singed blue of the summer sky or the forked feathers on a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher lifts my spirits as though I could launch upward into the heavens as they all do. Now that I’ve ousted my childish casualness toward birds, I don’t want them to leave me behind.

Photo: Shore Bird

Another bodacious birdie from near the Puerto Rican shore.

The Bones of the Beach

I grew up pretty near the Pacific Ocean. It was a matter of a couple of hours to get to its shores from home, and mere minutes’ drive to Puget Sound, and I have always loved any chance to spend time along the water. At home in Texas, it’s not so easy: there are a few man-made lakes within a short drive, with a few public beach spots along the edges of each, most of the time too hot for strolling, and that’s about it. So that recent trip to Puerto Rico was a brief but lovely reminder of what pleasure I find in wandering the beach when I can, absorbing not only a bit of salt water through my happy bare feet and the tangy air through my expanding lungs but also the great sense of history and adventure inherent in all of the findings strewn along the tidal brink.Digital collage: Beachcomber's Trove

Despite being so much a water-baby at heart, I’ve never so much loved open water swimming—after all, my people are the pale, easily fried folk of Norway who transplanted to the familiarly brisk spank of the coastal waters to fish and farm and forest-hunt as they’d done back in the old country. But I’m drawn all the same to explore the tide-pools and comb through the heaps of hidden-and-revealed treasure that line the beach, sucking deep breaths of sea breeze happily right down to my soul. I love to see all of the bits of shell and bone and stone piled up and intermingled with molted feathers, ship detritus and the petrified lace of corals and seaweed. Every tiny piece seems to hold such a storied past that I can stare and sift and dream endlessly.Photos: Beach Bones

What caused that lone shoe to wash up here from unknown shores? Why are those pieces of sea-soaked driftwood burnt but not in the fire pit, rather appearing like a dragon-singed skeleton in a distant heap down the shore? How did so many colors of ghostly and sandblasted beach glass come to bejewel the line of the tide together? Who were the creatures that fished the shore and left bleached fish bones here, a crab shell there? When did the storms kick up such a foment of foam that the inland side of mean high tide has a gloss of it lacquered firmly across the surface of its sand? Where are the children whose sandcastle ruins are still tucked behind the biggest boulders on the beach, waving flags of leaf and kelp from their stunted battlements? And most importantly, when can I return to the beach to stroll and dream of such things again?

Reptiles, Amphibians & Humans, Oh My! (Part 2)

I won’t cheat you. Just because I posted those highly fictionalized cartoony versions of a reptile and an amphibian yesterday when I was singing the praises of singing frogs, iguanas, turtles and their fellow creatures doesn’t mean I wouldn’t share the joys of the real things with you as well. So consider yourself forearmed with this brief alert: cuteness and beauty ahead! Real, live. Starring some fantastic iguanas and our own, homegrown Tiny Tim/Tina Turtle. Photo: Dynamic Iguana Duo

Photo: Iguana Photo-Bomb

Photo: Magnificent Reptile

Photo: Our Tiny Turtle

Photo: Tiny Tim (or Tina) Turtle

Reptiles, Amphibians & Humans, Oh My! (Part 1)

I’ve been surrounded by a wealth of intriguing, beautiful and amusing creatures lately. Both on our Caribbean outing and now back at home, the company I’ve been keeping have been anything but dull. I’ve had to keep my distance, though, almost as if I were some sort of dangerous predator. With the people, since we got home to Texas, I’ve tried to avoid any unnecessary exposure to what turned out to be a reasonable suspicion of coming down with a cold (not as bad as my spouse’s, at least); with the other companions, it’s more a matter of keeping a respectful distance from their wildness.Digital illustration: Froggy FriendWith the frogs, to be fair, it was unlikely we’d cross paths, since they were hanging out on the periphery of where we were. We heard consistent singing from the local mascot Coquí, the sweet frog species revered in Puerto Rico for its generous insect pest control and other charms, not least of them the evening chorale of the mate-seeking males. Didn’t see any, though, other than that sort of movement that is just past peripheral view. Enjoyed the songs, all the same.

For actual sightings, however, the reptile population has kept us in better company. Best In Show goes to the iguana population of Puerto Rico, for making frequent appearances to show off the varied beauties of the species. Crested or not, dragon-sized or baby-dainty, green or earthily striped, iguanas and other lizards fascinate me and get my vote for lovely monsters whenever I can see them, and the more so when they’re not in some pet store or zoo, just hanging around in their natural haunts. That’s my kind of ‘haunting beauty,’ if you know what I mean.Digital illustration: Reptilian WriggleIn that respect, the iguanas got some serious competition as beauty champs in my own personal creature feature when we got home from our trip and had a first-ever visit on our lot—albeit in a risky appearance in the middle of our driveway—of the most charming little turtle, no longer than my outstretched hand. Thankfully, my husband/chauffeur spotted the little guy, avoided driving over him, and went back out on foot to gently relocate the turtle to our back garden, where there are lots of good turtle snacks growing, plenty of taller plants for shelter from sun and predators, and a shortage of adorable turtles that he/she helped alleviate by visiting. That makes me a happy critter.

Thirsty as Ever

Last week we were rained on rather thoroughly in Puerto Rico, but only in a welcome, friendly way. That’s how it gets, and stays, so verdant and rich—Rico—there, after all. Other than trying to steer clear of the biggest instant rivers in the roads, the only negative reaction I can say I had to the episode was one of longing for the same thing to happen just a little more often in Texas. Happily, there was a brief, modest rainfall today. But I’m feeling a little greedy, and hoping for more.
Photo: Thunderhead near San JuanSo Rain, Already

Something hanging in the air, like newly laundered sheets

Oppresses breath and dampens souls and irons out the streets;

Humidity flows, deep and wide, ’til birds transform to fish,

Swimming in air as thick as seas, until my fondest wish

Is that a seam should open up the center of the sky

And rain pour down, and I’ll feel, too, so happy I could cry.Photo: Thunderclouds over San Juan

Foodie Tuesday: Been There, Eaten That

Travel: good. Travel while eating delicious foods along the way: fabulous. Puerto Rico last week: a joy.

We went there for a specific reason, to attend the wedding of loved friends. But if one, well, has to go to an island paradise for any reason, one might as well enjoy as many other  aspects of said island as possible during the visit. So we did that, too. Good excuse to try out a few of the classic traditional foods of the place, enjoy a few modern additions, and relish the marvelous atmosphere that makes it all taste so wonderful.

Photo: Bacalaítos

Bacalaítos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacala%C3%ADto) are a delicious small bite, fried seasoned salt cod that is often served with a dipping sauce to complement it—for example, here, a buttery garlic sauce; elsewhere, a sweet-bright guava sauce. When beautifully made, as tender and light as the most fabulous fish cakes or fish-and-chips cod anywhere.

Photo: Kitty Cat Fried Eggs

While we did sample our way through the trip, we couldn’t manage to eat *everything* on offer. I was left wondering what precisely this menu item was, if not eggs produced and cooked by felines, but it amused me to ponder on it all the same.

Photo: In Lieu of Ginger Ale

If what’s requested isn’t available, sometimes what you get might be even more fitting for the occasion. No ginger ale? Coconut soda suits a casual meal of Puerto Rican treats just fine!

Photo: Fried Pork Luncheon

A delicious lunch of fried pork, beans and rice, and tostones goes down ever so nicely and makes perfect fuel for a busy afternoon of exploration in San Juan Viejo, especially when eaten with a massive side order of mofongo.

Photo: The Apotheosis of Limeade

The current crisis of the Mexican lime crop notwithstanding, the fabulously refreshing limeade at Cueva del Mar is jammed with both limes and flavor.

Photo: Egg-Battered Shrimp

Seafood reigns supreme in island culture, and with good reason. The egg-battered prawns my spouse ordered were fresh and sweet and tender. Better yet, they were plentiful enough he was willing to share some with me. Hurray for seafood!

Photo: Conch Empanadillas

I, meanwhile, opted to get my first taste of conch. Also tender and flavorful! Diced up and seasoned as they were, they reminded me a little of something about halfway between ham and clams. And all the way delicious.

Photo: Yummy Little Fried Pies

I started with shrimp and mahi-mahi empanadillas, because despite the server’s assurance that my initial choices of conch and crab were her two favorite varieties, the kitchen was entirely out of them at the moment. Turns out they were *all* tasty little fried hand pies.

Photo: Mamposteao

One of the clear favorites in the dish derby of our trip was Mamposteao, the glorious beans-and-rice concoction originating as leftover bean stew mixed with rice and cooked in a hot pan until it develops a crisp crust around its tender and succulent insides. (https://www.google.com/search?q=mamposteao&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=z16BU7r7GdWVqAakwYLgBQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1328&bih=763). We ordered it more than once, and I think I could eat it more than once a *week* if given the chance.

Photo: Madame St. Germain

A lovely drink, the Madame St. Germain; simply add a splash of St. Germain (elderflower) liqueur to a flute of Prosecco, and splish-splash, you have a sparkling glass of sunlight at any time of day or evening.

Photo: Chocolate Grilled Cheese

As it happens, the Madame St. Germain goes beautifully with the chocolate grilled cheese sandwiches at the magical Casa Cortés ChocoBar, made of brioche, cheddar and cocoa-blended butter and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar just in case you didn’t feel delightedly decadent enough already.

Photo: Swiss Pastries

Even with my seemingly boundless appetite, sometimes there were actual items I couldn’t quite manage to eat. It didn’t stop my wandering, food-lustful eyes from enjoying every bit, though, as in the Swiss bakery where we went with our friends to pick up a birthday cake. Because having a big wedding celebration for his sister and the opening of his new brewpub wasn’t quite enough celebrating for one fantastic man.

Photo: the Wedding Cake

There *was* a glamorous and deliciously moist wedding cake, should you wonder, and I assume it came from that same phantasmagorical bakery. So beautiful, so happily massacred by the hungry after-wedding crowd.

Photo: Pork, and All the Trimmings

But first there was the buffet of roasted pork with all of the trimmings: an unfussy and freshly crisp salad, more delicious rice and beans, what I believe were pasteles (a sort of tamale cousin—http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/puerto-rican-pasteles) and, oh yes, more pork.

Photo: The Pig in All Its Glory

All of the wedding feast was magnificent, but the star is and was, as it should be, the roasted pig in all its shiny, juicy, crackling-skinned glory.

What, you want more? Of course there was more, and plenty of it, beginning with a scrumptious party at the bride’s brother’s brewery (try saying that trifecta after a couple of glasses of his spectacularly creamy Scotch Porter style beer, infused with just a touch of Puerto Rican rum!) with all kinds of pizza made on the spot, my favorite of which was bacon and sweet plantains. We succeeded in eating more than was necessary, but not more than was enjoyable, on every single day of our visit, not counting having to get up at 4:30 on the last one to get to the airport on time. And I will certainly get right on board, fork in hand, with the opportunity to revisit the island and all of its culinary kindnesses any time I get the chance. You probably should, too.

Remembering Them All

Memorial Day is a US holiday begun after the American Civil War to recognize and honor the service and sacrifices of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

I have an immeasurable horror of war and every single thing associated with it.Photo: Memorial Day 1

But on our recent visit to Puerto Rico, as we were walking around the museum ruins of  a fortress in San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, looking at the remains of its heavy battlements, at its cannons and their tracks in the gunneries, at the sparse quarters of the soldiers who served there, and at the museum signs telling the stories of El Morro’s past, I remembered too that the vast majority of the people who are involved in wars hate them as much as I do. War is chosen and declared by a tiny minority in even those bands or nations that instigate the wars. The rest, soldiers included, pretty much have it thrust upon them, and I can’t imagine anyone who dies in battle had any desire to do anything other than to defend or capture whatever or whomever he or she was sent to defend or capture, and go home peacefully. Even some of those who declare the wars and enlist willingly to fight in them probably often have done so with a sense of rightness, if not righteousness, in the cause.Photo: Memorial Day 2

I looked around the Castillo and, for all of its historical interest and the beauty of its locale and weathered stone walls, the birds and iguanas and wildflowers decorating it quaintly, what I saw was a memorial to the many lives lost, soldiers and civilians, natives and outsiders, adults and children, the good and the bad alike. All because humans aren’t famously good at sharing their world with each other and resolving conflicts without violence. I will always have a horror of war and all the loss of life that it brings.Photo: Memorial Day 3

But I am, honestly, grateful to those who have—willingly or not—paid with their own lives for the lives and welfare of others, and I remember them not only on this designated day but every time I pause to reflect on the high cost of peace for our oxymoronically named species, man-kind. Seems to me that there’s no better way to honor soldiers for their service and sacrifice than to end the potential for any more such work and eliminate all wars forevermore.Photo: Memorial Day 4

Bring It On

There’s that old saying about how ‘it never rains but it pours,’ and while I often think it’s true that troubles and trials seem to come in number rather than singly, I also tend to think that’s the sense we get because everything subsequent event’s difficulty is magnified by the one that preceded it. And of course, in a more literal sense, since moving to Texas five years ago during a period of general drought in the region, I would be inclined to say that it seldom rains enough here, let alone pours. Much as I might find minor inconveniences and even annoyances brought on by a rainy day, the more so if it’s stormy, I am glad enough of the needed moisture that I don’t hang onto any grudges against nature’s outpourings. Even on that persistently blinding, bleary day of storms when I took my turn driving toward home at the end of last year’s summer road trip I was more grateful than hateful regarding the dousing we received, and that’s going some for a nervous driver like me.Photo: Rain Storm on the Road

I am reminded these days, though, of the original frustrated character of the proverb and am working not to get sucked down into such a mode myself. There have been little hints from my mind and body that perhaps the decade-plus of grand good health and wellness I’ve enjoyed upon being treated for and generally freed from depression and anxiety and the nasty physiological symptoms thereof may be, like the moon in a spooky campfire tale, on the wane. I’ve avoided thinking about it much not only because it’s an unpleasant prospect in itself but also for superstitious fear that just contemplating such a thing makes it more possibly true. And at first, it was just those little, nagging bits of something that I couldn’t quite define as backsliding: a hint more tension when riding in the car, a touch more touchy about unimportant problems in the day-to-day, a stomach-ache when I get worried about a deadline….

But when we were at the airport the other day, waiting to board a perfectly ordinary flight to go to the familiarity of our own home after ending a week of (for me) unfamiliar and exciting travel that should have been the tough part of the equation if there were any, I had the horrible experience of an emotional meltdown in a panic attack. It’s been so many years since I had one that I almost didn’t realize what was happening and thought I had simply gotten a sudden illness of a more ordinary kind, and that would be irritating enough in its own way, but when I did connect the dots and know that I was losing all sense of control and well-being, the drop down that well was swift and obliterating. I am relieved that it was a relatively short-lived event, and I doubt many around me knew anything untoward was happening, but inside, I was a morass of terror, unable even to speak in quiet gratitude to my spouse for his patience. In the end, I got on the plane and, once there, cocooned with my scarf and went to sleep as quickly as I could, and that was that.

The speed and intensity of the attack, however, were enough to convince me that it’s now time to see the doctor and discuss what to do before I fall as far, and for as long, as I had in the past. I have no use for being that powerless and miserable shadow of myself ever again. I hate feeling almost perpetually nauseated, often breathless or dizzy, ice-cold and then broiling hot and then ice-cold again. I loathe feeling like I will burst into absolutely unwarranted uncontrollable crying at any moment. I abhor feeling like a useless baby. I despise feeling so sick and enervated and exhausted that I can barely lift my arms, no, can hardly croak out a word without wanting to keel over. I reject that version of me!

During our lovely week in Puerto Rico, it rained one day in the intense and intimidating and glorious way that a tropical shower can do. It was pouring thoroughly enough that we waited until the hardest pounding let up a little, popped open our umbrellas, and headed out knowing we’d get good and wet. I was glad of wearing both quick-drying summery clothes and open, flow-through sandals, because even with our umbrellas in full bloom and the rain somewhat lessened, within about two blocks’ walk we were seeing rivers race down the street and right on up over our feet. By the time we stopped in a coffee shop not so many minutes later, we were pretty damp all over and soaked up over the ankles. It was warm weather, and the rain dried very quickly indeed, and of course we long for that sort of bounty for our Texas landscape, so we rather enjoyed the novelty of it all. But I’ll admit that even knowing that the rain’s a tiny price to pay for the generous greenery of the tropics, I was delighted to see the sun again as soon as it arrived.Photo: Rainfall in San Juan

I can’t say what is the benefit of going through the floods of depression and anxiety. I can only hope that at least it teaches me to be more mindful of the many blessings I do have and to fight my way back up and out toward them as quickly as I possibly can. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will also be more sensitive to others’ struggles when I have been reminded how hard it is to keep perspective when one’s own brain and body absolutely refuse to bow or to cooperate with the tiniest and simplest, most logical of requests. All I can say for certain is that I am not planning to lie back and take it. You’re gonna rain on me, eh? Bring it on. Getting out my umbrella, yes. Digging up every resource I can find or imagine, done and done. Climbing up the side of the well with my own fingernails if I have to, rather than falling farther into it, see ya on the other side, pal. Bring it on.

No Man is an Island, and Sometimes Going to an Island is a Good Reminder

photoWe had this adventure, my man and I. Went to an island. A lovely one called Puerto Rico. We spent a week on that beautiful piece of Caribbean land and enjoyed the break from our everyday Real Life, the immersion in nature and its marvelous native birds and insects and flora and the wash of its rolling waves on luxuriant green shores.

The quiet was exceedingly welcome.

But our reason for the trip wasn’t isolation and retreat. We went for the wedding of dear friends. And the wedding of a Puerto Rican woman with a big, loving family and a lot of friends to a North American man bringing his own contingent of supporters from Canada and the US is not a place to go and lie low with the covers pulled up over one’s head.

As if it weren’t already too warm and humid to be curled up under a duvet.

So we had the fantastic experience of being drawn into this jolly, joyous gathering and treated like more members of the extended family, and along with our enjoyment of being on that wonderful island, we had the perfect reminder of what’s so great about being surrounded by dear and tremendous people and how the pleasures of the place, the travel, the newness and beauties not previously experienced, all are enhanced so richly by the good company.

It’s why I spend so much time in the good company of my blogging and blog-reading companions, of course, but as always, it takes a change of scenery to remind me of what I should already know. It’s good to be home, and all the more so when I’ve been away. Here, I am once again awash in a sea of friends and loved ones, and I am doubly glad.