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A Word for 2019

February 10, 2019

In Pratchett’s Discworld, specifically in Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax boasts of her ability to speak foreign, a smattering of non-English she has gathered through her travels. One illustrative bit of vocabulary is flabberghast, meaning bat. We, too, living abroad and traveling widely find ourselves speaking foreign, both the Discworld’s and our own variations.  Knowing that bat in German is Fledermaus, that bats on the Disc are often vampires, and that vampires can be ghastly, this is a brilliant portmanteau. We sorely miss you, Sir Terry.  But I digress.  Languages also have false friends, words that sound so very familiar but mean something else entirely, such as embarazada.  While the actual condition may or may not be embarrassing, telling a Spanish priest your girlfriend is pregnant because she did not realize she should cover her head in church would be.  And often there is no direct translation at all.  A single word in any language may have several distinct meanings, but be parsed out over a few different words in another language.  My Word for 2019 is such a one:


A quick perusal of several European languages has convinced me these five letters are doing heavy lifting for us.  A brief overview of what grace gives the English-speaking world would include unmerited divine assistance, favor, reprieve, a charming or attractive characteristic, ease of movement or bearing, also a short prayer for blessing or giving thanks.  In action, grace confers honor, adornment, or embellishment.

The word itself has graced my feeds repeatedly over the last several months, longer even as I found working with some documents from last spring

2018.05.09 Lush & theology

Full of Grace serum bar – 💖 Just bought a new one.  Paul advises us to “Let your conversation be always full of grace” (Colossians 4:6)     A pleasant reminder in my vanity cabinet

Grace-full, yes.  This is how I want to be in the world… at least this year.  There is a saying that grace is being given that which we do not deserve; mercy is being spared that which we do.  I gratefully accept any unmerited assistance or favor God cares to bestow.  I also resolve to do my best to move through these moments and days with ease.  And lastly, I will embellish the bare bones of living with beauty, interest, and depth wherever I may.

Grace had been settling into my mind and heart for some time while I continued to wait for an animal to represent it for me in 2019.  You may remember 2018’s Vitality and its corresponding Squirrel.  Well, last month in Florida, my day was powerfully graced by a visitation of sting rays, dozens of them, just along my beach one morning.  I was all but alone and the few other walkers were consumed with searching for shells at their feet.  I was mesmerized by this giant swooping party of cownose rays, a private invitation to observe their rites.  They were fast, powerful, and beautiful; the embodiment, individually and corporally, of grace.


Cownose Rays

Just Needling You, a PSA

November 16, 2018
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Get your flu shot.  Protect yourself; protect the herd.  It’s no big deal.  The person with the syringe will even administer the vaccination, you know, because s/he’s a medical professional of some variety, trained an’ that.  Unless you live here.

The pharmacist will sell you a single dose of vaccine (in the stumpiest syringe ever) and then you’re on your own, buddy.  Seriously.  Not just flu shots, either.  They will send you home with DIY muscle relaxants or antibiotics.  I have a friend, living alone, who arranged to meet another friend in a convenient parking lot to have her give her a quick jab in the tuchus to relieve her back spasm.  How sketchy is that?  Another friend’s son was very ill, but she wasn’t up to the twice daily intramuscular injections, so she knew someone making a tidy business going around needling folks for a reasonable fee.

My veterinary nursing didn’t prepare me for human IM inoculations.  Fortunately, I have a friend who worked for Eli Lilly.  In that capacity, she did ‘community outreach’ ~here’s how to use our products~ in the local health clinic, and thereby is comfortable enough to lend us a hand.

So, my corner farmacista sold me two of these:

which we carried down with a spot of alcohol and cotton balls to my friend’s shop at the end of her working day.  Wham bam thank you, ma’am, and we’re done here.

Now, doesn’t it seem silly not to swing by your local CVS today and have it all done for you?

Seasonal WOE

June 12, 2018

A Whole Food Plant Based diet, that’s my goal.  But even this label is misleading if you haven’t heard of it; it isn’t just plant based, as though there are then animals stacked on top.  I eat plants.  I use non-diary milks and cheesy things.  I make these choices because we, as a species, cannot be trusted to be good stewards of the lives with which we have been entrusted.  We treat living, breathing, feeling creatures like objects and products; it makes me sick and unspeakably sad.  However tasty bacon and roasted chicken may be, if I can’t know those beings weren’t made to suffer because a decent life before a humane slaughter is too expensive, I just can’t stomach it.  I do use honey from people I know who love their bees, take care of them, and do not abuse them with being hauled across hell’s half acre to pollinate mono-culture crops (which is a rant for another day, but soon, given that Bayer has just swallowed Monsanto like so many aspirin). I even wear leather boots because one pair will serve my true needs for many many years, and the other side of the coin is petroleum-based, breaking down quickly, and requiring more frequent replacement.  No, I’ll never be vegan… unless I move back to the tropics and no longer have need of trusty boots.  So, my vegan-ish ways are more what the cool kids call a Way of Eating, WOE.  Yeah, I know, but it seems to have stuck.  People are choosing WFPB for a wide variety of reasons, from wanting no part in the commoditization of lives for profit to their own scary numbers from the doctor’s lab to feeling better for eating plants rather than animals to believing Albert Einstein (that smarty pants) when he said, Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.  There you go, not just filthy hippy tree huggers, although if the patchouli fits . . .

When I was a child, my mother used to take us to a produce stand in the summer.  Being the ‘70s, an era full of ‘time-savers for busy housewives’ that came in boxes from the supermarket, it was novel to go to a place where the food just sat there in crates, naked for crying out loud.  You could touch it!  and smell it . . .  and pick it out for your own self.  I hadn’t thought of that old stand, long since built over with some suburban McMansion, in decades, but sometimes things, and if you’re very lucky, good thing come full circle.  This is how I, now older than she was then, acquire most of our food.  Two or three times a week, I walk up the hill to a little store full of wooden crates (often being dollied in and out as I shop) with the freshest, mostly local produce you’re ever going to get.  It’s run by a woman and her two daughters.  They have put the man and me together, the two strange Americans who shop on different days, and have begun to remember our favorites and idiosyncrasies ~”…the woman will buy all the fresh mushrooms, don’t try to give them plastic bags, she loads her canvas sack so precisely, saving delicate delicacies for the top ~ and seem to find us amusing.  Occasionally, I burden them with the knowledge of what I’m going to do with their fruit and veg.  I am anathema, causing centuries Italian nonne to spin in uncountable graves.

Trying to limit the kilometers our food travels, local means seasonal.  I enjoy watching the changing of the seasons in those wooden crates.  It struck me that summer has arrived when, the last time I filled my bag after weighing and paying, the daughter commented that everything is delicate today: peaches, tomatoes, cherries, kiwis, romaine.  She didn’t know what to put on the bottom.  It caused me to think back six months, when everything could go on the bottom: whole squash, cauliflower, apples, potatoes, carrots, broccoli.  I never mourn the passing of cruciferous vegetable season, and not just because that means corn-on-the-cob season is just around the corner.  This has only recently become the case.  Up until a couple of years ago, corn ~everywhere in cans; they do eat corn, even beyond polenta~ was not to found fresh, on the cob.  Then, a few cobettes wrapped in plastic and styrofoam began to appear.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy individually plasticized servings when I know full well that they grow in their own perfectly good, biodegradable packaging.  Then, lo and behold, the organic grocery had some for a month one summer.  The next year, our regular Frutta Verdura ladies did, too!  If they didn’t think I was cracked before, the happy dance I did in the middle of their shop clinched it.

All the privations and unpleasant surprises we began with here have jaded me, crushed my expectations to where is it going to kick me next?, but I also appreciate every little advancement now.  New people don’t know that we didn’t see an avocado for many years.  Now we have them much of the time.  Even the little local grocery, that reminds me of Crescent Market on Siesta Key of my childhood vacations, carries tofu, seitan, and faux burgers.  It is so much easier, and more interesting, to eat no animals (at least in my own home) than it used to be.  But my day-in day-out eating starts and ends with whole plants, food without a label, no ingredient list.  I know what I’m putting in my body.  I feel good about it, where it came from, what it cost.

And if you happen across flat peaches ~might be called Saturnia or tabacchiera, try them.  I told the daughter that I call them pesche ciambelle because they are so sweet. She looked uncertain.  Word play is very tricky here.  “Doughnut peaches,”  it took her another second, then she said, “Ah! Homer Simpson!”

From this side of Rainbow Bridge

March 13, 2018

“Monti is dead.”  He’d suddenly fallen very ill two weeks before, but Monti was such a big magnificent cat, I really thought having come through the crisis, he would rebound to his glorious self and remain among us a while longer.  But there the text sat, like cold lead in my stomach.  It was a hidden time bomb circulating through his regal body.  He’d been living on borrowed time already, despite being the picture of feline strength and superiority.  I wanted to tell my man the horrible news, but I couldn’t repeat those words: Monti is dead, so final, so static.  All I could say was, “Monti died,” an action, his final action, but still a thing he did with his last breath.  It’s just verb conjugation, language, means the same thing in the end, but why can I accept that he died, hold that in my sorrowful heart, but not that he is dead?

You were too grand, too much, for this world.  May we meet again in the next, my sublime friend.

A Day Among Giants

November 25, 2017

8:00 at Volunteer House, Buin brings breakfast from the kitchen.  Just for me, as I am the sole volunteer at Wildlife SOS right now.  It’s well before monsoon season, so it is dry and ferociously hot.  I have never been so thirsty, all the time, even as I am drinking, I’m still thirsty, all day.  I digress.  Eggs, chapatis, toast, cheese, fruit, and tea are standard breakfast fare.  I supplement with peanut butter someone left behind.  Between 8:30 and 9:00, my handlers -Shivam and Hari – collect me in the minivan for the drive up the highway to the WSOS Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC).

The elephants have already had their breakfast and been for their morning constitutional.  Their caretakers are up early with them every day.  This walk is the long one for their daily exercise.  Volunteers no longer assist with the morning walk as the practice included many extra bananas and the elephants were putting on too much weight.  Volunteers are suckers.

My first responsibility is to rinse the fruits and vegetables for their lunch, then chop them up, weigh, and divide it all into their individually labeled buckets.  It varies by season, but in May there are watermelons, cucumbers, winter squash, and bananas.  We chop it up to slow their eating and make the activity more interesting for them.  For the most part, everyone gets 10kg of whatever is available (3 times per day), a serving of grain porridge, and green fodder suspended from the rafters as if they were trees for grazing.  Suzy, however, gets special treatment because she has no teeth to speak of.  Her watermelon will be just the best bits, no rind, and her bananas are only the ripest ones.  And, as mentioned previously, Laxmi is served softened soy nuggets instead of the nearly solid porridge the others have.  The creation of faux trees is a variety of “enrichment,” to mimic natural situations in order to engage their minds.  Other forms of enrichment include tires and perforated barrels full of nuts.  Laxmi uses the halyard, which lifts bundles of browse, to scratch her back and, improbably, to floss her teeth.  She’s a clever girl.

But before lunch time is bath time!  In the wild, their mothers, aunties, and grandmothers would have taught them how to care for their hides, where to bathe and how to scratch, but being kidnapped as infants, this they never learned.  So it is my great honor and pleasure to bathe these giants.  They come up on the concrete pad in their enclosures, except the ones who prefer to stand in the yard.  It’s their choice.  Phoolkali stands patiently as her keeper begins to hose her down.  “Now.  Here. Scrub.  Scrub hard!”  He doesn’t have much English, but sufficient.  “Scrub bum!”  He finds this hilarious.  And I am scrubbing an elephant’s bum!  Also, I’m sure my soaking head to foot isn’t accidental.  But as I mentioned, it is tandoori-hot, so a mid-day drenching isn’t unwelcome.  (Yes, well, there was that rash.  But it cleared up. . . eventually.)  Volunteers are discouraged from random physical interactions with the elephants because as strangers, our only purpose is to provide food.  If we don’t have food, they see this as a confusing breach of contract.  But bath time is different.  They know the routine, so it is perfectly acceptable to sneak in some hugging along with the scrubbing.

After everyone is fresh and clean, the buckets come out.  As the veterinarian and his assistants make their rounds, part of lunch is doled out during medical treatments.  The practice of target training is employed to facilitate examination and treatment.  The elephants learn what is expected of them and they are rewarded for compliance.  There is a small gate in one wall especially for mani-pedis.  One day, on my way to the barn, I heard someone trumpeting repeatedly, unusual.  It was Laxmi with her veterinarian.  He was working on a new behaviour with her, to be able to examine her more easily.  But last time they had been working on “speak,” which is easier than “kneel”, that day’s lesson.  Laxmi knew that speaking had been sufficient to merit her reward before and thought if she just kept pushing, he would relent.  In the end, the banana was worth kneeling for, especially to dear Laxmi dumpling.

Giant grass-like greenery forage is then distributed, hung about the barn, with which the elephants may amuse themselves for much of the afternoon.  Humans have lunch and take a siesta.  Ours is delivered to the Office/Meeting Room/Volunteer Base stacked in tiffins which fit into something like a giant thermos:  chapatis, curry, rice, veg.  It’s too hot to work in the middle of the day, so everyone takes a break.  I flop down flat on the floor and take a nap, because elephant keeping is hard work!

After siesta, it’s chopping time again.  The wasps (they call them bees, but I don’t know about that) are on full detail, keen for the watermelons.  The keepers seem to be experimenting with how best to deal with them.  I agree that leaving the watermelons whole in the bottom of the buckets to be cracked on demand is a good plan.  Have you ever opened a watermelon with an I-beam?  Or a pumpkin with a concrete floor?  I have.  My world felt very small and fiddly upon returning from living with giants.  My cat’s litter box with its little scoop was nothing compared to picking up elephant poops.  The keepers do it bare handed, but the rubber gloves provided were only a polite fiction anyway.  Surprisingly, being herbivores, the smell was remarkably unoffensive.  The Forest Department takes and uses it to fertilize their projects.

Evening Walk is the most beautiful time of day.  We lead the elephants out into their wide open field, then they are free to wander as they please.  Or to stand where they like.  Or tear up vegetation or scratch against a tree.  For intelligent, sensitive beings who have spent decades, lifetimes, never being able to make a choice for themselves and the choices made by others bringing only suffering, I cannot imagine what it means to them to have this freedom.  We sit on the ground, watching them in their peaceful magnificence.  When it’s time to go in, their caretaker calls to Maya.  She walks away from him…. because she can and no one is going to beat her for it.  He calls again.  She stops, her back to us.  Then I feel it in my chest.  Phoolkali is calling her.  With a nearly subsonic oceanic purr, she rumbles to her friend.  I am thunderstruck.  They had spent their lives alone, with no herd, no companionship, no sisterhood, no one to talk to.  Maya slowly turns around and makes her way back to us.

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Dinner is served, including porridge, vegetation hoisted, and I am done.  I tell those dear ladies goodnight, and am conveyed back to Volunteer House.  The keepers will check on them again later, refill their amusements/snacks for the night, then do it all again the next day.

I tuck into the dinner Cook prepares for me as I am ravenous, every night.  Then I post a few unbelievable pictures from my day on social media and sleep like the dead for 10 hours.  I am grateful for being the only one in the House.  I’m giving everything every day to those elephants; I don’t have an ounce left for small talk with shiny kids on their Gap Year, bless ‘em.  In fact, having signed up for two weeks rather than the standard suggestion of one, was perfect.  When it was over, I was sad to be leaving them, but I had nothing left to give.  I’m not as strong as I was . . . 20 years ago when I hung shutters for a living.  I could feel my reserves draining, each morning the tank was a little farther off Full than the morning before. It was entirely worth it, every minute, and I will do it again.

A farewell trunk-fist bump with sweet Phoolkali, until we meet again