Like most of you, I’ve been finding ways to amuse myself during our COVID-19 quarantine. The picture attached to this post shows you one thing that’s been occupying my time. This puzzle is a compilation of covers from the first 56 Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured these books as a kid and am surprised at how many of the plot lines apparently have been nesting in some obscure corner of my brain for the last several decades.
This paragraph is a complete tangent, so if you want to stay with the main theme of this post, just skip on. No offense taken. But as much as I loved Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective is still Judy Bolton. The Judy series ran roughly contemporaneously with ND, although it differed from its more successful sister in several ways. One difference that I always appreciated was that Judy, unlike Nancy, was not a perfect person. She had a temper, acted impetuously, and bickered with her older brother. She also grew older and changed. We meet her in high school in the first book, The Vanishing Shadow. By the time the series ended, Judy had graduated from high school, worked as a secretary, gotten married, and started to take on issues such as the plight of many Native Americans (The Spirit of Fog Island) and anti-Muslim violence (The Search for the Glowing Hand). We had to go see the Dragon’s Mouth at Yellowstone since Judy had traveled there in one of her books. 🙂
Back to the Nancy covers now! I’m loving the puzzle. Putting each piece in place is satisfying. That’s because the picture is only complete when all of the pieces are there. It takes all of them to make the picture perfect. I’m reminded of the old song, “All of Me.” You may already be familiar with it, but this song is worth another listen. I know it mostly from the Willie Nelson version, but the Billie Holiday rendition grabs me like no other. The song may be on the old side – it was written in 1931 – but its wise message endures. Give completely. If you’re in a relationship, give yourself fully to another person. Once you’ve decided on a course of action, commit yourself. When you read or listen or admire, focus. “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not take all of me?”
Given that perspective, I’m taking this song as my anthem for our COVID-19 experience. I’m all in on lockdown. There’s no cheating to run out and look at the sunset, even if the police are nowhere in sight. There’s no quick run over to a neighbor’s place for a chat, even if the neighbor is in my building and the visit would be undetectable. We all have to do this to protect ourselves and everyone around us. As with my puzzle, if one piece is missing, if one person cheats – the picture is imperfect. And with COVID-19, imperfection could be disastrous.
We will get through this time and look back on it, perhaps, with a weird fondness. Most of us have never experienced anything that binds us so much, that shows us how we truly are all in this together. Remember that “All of Me” became a hit during the Depression. This was another time when we saw how interconnected we are and rose to the occasion to weather it. We can do this. It just takes all of me. It just takes all of us.
You have no idea how ironic this picture is and why Johnny Cash ought to be in it.
Let me explain. Mark and I recently visited Mallorca. Famous as the playground of the rich, this lovely island has it all: beaches, mountains, castles, and sweeping views of the Mediterranean. But what Mallorca, and specifically this place, got me thinking about was the contrast between the walls we build and the sea surrounding us.
I began musing on this topic when we visited Bellver Castle, situated on a mountain near Palma. To be sure, visiting a castle in Spain is kind of like going to a Starbucks in the USA – the buildings are everywhere, and what’s for sale inside is generally overpriced. Bellver commands gorgeous views of Palma and the sea, as the picture above shows. The castle was built in the 1300s as a defensive position and a residence for King James II of Mallorca. But the buildings have a darker side as well. Political prisoners deemed too seditious to be let loose in society were held there. These prisoners were to be found as late as the 20th century, when two Catalan leaders were imprisoned there before they were shot. And what did those shut up in the castle look on, day and night? The sea. The beautiful, ever-moving sea, where for thousands of years human movement from one place to another has been going on, day and night. And much of that movement has been about politics.
Many the journeys across Mare Nostrum, as the Romans called the Med, were, of course, commercial in nature. Traders have sailed these waters for thousands of years, carrying cargo in everything from wine skins and amphora full of of olive oil to modern shipping containers stuffed with TVs from China and designer clothing stitched up in Vietnam. If you ever visit us, we will take you to Cartagena to see the renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology. This gem of a museum will give you a good look at commerce in our sea.
But many Mediterranean voyages involved politics. Certainly these were sometimes cast as exploration or pilgrimage. For example, Phoenicians sailed to Cadiz to recreate their fine cities on its hooked peninsula. Cleopatra sailed her exotic painted ships to Rome to visit Julius Caesar. (That went well.) Saint Paul sailed in the Mediterranean, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not. Later, Crusaders climbed aboard ships and set their eyes on the Holy Land, where they hoped to carve out territory for themselves in this life and the next. And many political voyages were more overt. The Greeks sailed for Troy, Hannibal ferried his elephants from Africa, Roman galleys moved troops and governors across the waves, Napoleon and the English battled up and down the coasts, Germans and the Allies struggled for supremacy. The list is almost endless, but you get the idea.
It’s worth noting the cost of these voyages. Most of them succeeded, but many others did not. Innumerable shipwrecks, ranging in age from prehistory to the present day, litter the sea floor.
Perhaps the most compelling sea stories of all, though, are about the refugees who’ve sailed this sea. We teach some of these stories in literature classes. When Troy fell (more walls), Virgil tells us that brave Aeneas and a tiny remnant of his family sailed for Italy to try to start over. Much more recently, on the sun-drenched beaches of Mallorca, Spanish Republicans escaping from Franco launched every boat they could find and headed to relative safety in France. A few years later, many in France would sail to neutral Spain or Africa to flee from the Nazis. And in our own times, desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East clamber into leaky, overcrowded watercraft to escape war and poverty and, perhaps, find a better life in the EU or, ultimately, other parts of the world. The sea has always offered a way to move, to escape, to evade the strictures of the walls people construct.
Which brings us back to irony and Johnny Cash. Cue the Man in Black and his classic “Folsom Prison Blues,” where the prisoner in his cell hears a train whistle and laments, “But those people keep on movin’, and that’s what tortures me.” So here we are. Hello walls – and the sea beyond.
Yes, January 4 was that one. But apparently somebody will still need me and feed me.
January 4 is actually a funny birthday. On one level, it’s unfortunately right after Christmas and New Year’s, so people are kind of over celebrating. And I can’t count the number of times we went back to school on my birthday. On the other hand, when I was a kid, my mother – every year – would buy me toys and such “for Christmas and birthday,” feel generous and put them all under the tree, and then go buy a new set of birthday presents at after-Christmas sales. That was kind of sweet. So it all depends on how you look at it. In fact, I once worked with a guy who told me in passing how much he hated his birthday, and I told him I loved mine. It turns out we were both born on January 4. I think about that a lot.
Anyway, fast forward to this year. Turning any blank-4 age means going from early in the decade to mid-decade, and I notice that more as I age. And my body lets me know I’m older: my eyesight has worsened, my left hip protests when I first get out of bed, and I appear to be building a defensive barrier of jowls around my neck. So there’s a trepidation associated with birthdays now that didn’t used to be there. This is normal, presumably, although not necessarily terribly comforting.
I ended up having a really lovely day, though. Many friends and family members sent electronic greetings; some of my buddies from Democrats Abroad Spain even put together a montage of video greetings, which really made my day. Friends in France sang “Happy Birthday” in a snowy video from Montpelier, and of course the kids were in touch. Mark bought me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. We capped the day off with a dinner at a local restaurant with 14 lovely friends. The wine flowed, people chatted, and I got more hugs and kisses than any human being deserves. Chocolates and limoncello might also have been involved, but I’ll never tell. And a couple of dear friends in Murcia violated my injunction against presents and gave me a beautiful necklace that I’ll treasure forever. What great people, and what a great day!
And that’s actually my takeaway from this birthday: joy is corporate. My happiness is bound up in this lovely community of friends and family, both near and far. This conclusion surprises me a little, since I think of myself as a bit of a loner, off in the corner with a book. But my dizzyingly happy day was all about being with others and the pure pleasure that brought. Maybe this old dog can still learn a few new tricks.
I’ll leave you with one final image of my day. As we were getting ready for bed on the 3rd, I was a bit pouty-faced about changing ages. I’m old, said my brain; I’m old and I’m just going to keep getting older (duh, or keel over). Once again, my community saved me. My precious husband called up “When I’m 64” from his playlist, pulled me off my moody couch, and danced me around the room. That’s magic, folks, and I’m here to tell you it’s real. In fact, I’ve decided that next year’s birthday, should I be lucky enough to have one, is also going to be Beatle-themed. Except this time I’m going with “With a Little Help from my Friends.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. I could recite the excuses I’ve been using on myself, but that would be both irrelevant and boring. Suffice it to say that I’m resolved to blog more this year.
I hope you had a lovely start to 2023. Mark and I spent it in Zurich, sort of accidentally. We’d booked a flight from the Midwest, where we’d been seeing our kids and granddaughter for Christmas, and we were supposed to connect through Zurich. A couple of months ago, though, the airline changed its schedule, and we ended up with a day’s layover in Zurich. And that day happened to be New Year’s Eve. Worse things have happened!
Mark found us a lovely little hotel in the center of the city, and we grabbed a cab from the airport to it as soon as we got through Customs. God love the people at this establishment, because the staff had our room ready at 9:30 in the morning. Naps ensued, followed by a city tour and more naps. Jet lag is real, people!
We had dinner at a lovely little Italian restaurant across the cobbled street from our hotel. And at the appropriate time, we wandered down to the river, stood on the bridge with thousands of our best friends, and watched fireworks displays all around. The crowning glory was the municipality’s fireworks display, which was launched out over Lake Zurich. It was spectacular, and we toasted midnight with cups of Glühwein, the hot spiced wine favored in both the German-speaking world and the Morris/Tullos household. On our way back to our hotel, we danced a bit to the tunes the DJs were spinning and just generally acted like goofy tourists out on the town. And of course I spoke Spanish to everyone who spoke German to me, because apparently several neurons in my brain are convinced that there’s only one foreign language in the world. Mark teases me about it, but he did it this morning as well. Perhaps the condition is contagious.
Anyway, that’s the report from New Year’s Eve. We’re now back in our apartment in Spain. I unpacked the can of black eyed peas that we schlepped across the Atlantic, so that we will have good luck this year. (I think we deserve extra for all of that hauling, but we will have to see if that comes to pass.) I wish you good luck and much joy this year as well.
I recently took this picture at Oracle Park in San Francisco. Mark and I spent a fun evening there, watching the Giants play the Diamondbacks. The Giants won, by the way, but we weren’t there to see the 10th inning victory. We left around 9pm to head back to our hotel, due both to a really, really early flight the next morning and the fact that we were freezing in the stands. Mark Twain said something along the lines that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, and I agree!
(By the way, don’t ask me why the Coke bottle appears to be poised to pour its contents into a baseball glove. Happily, those contents are actually two long slides, which looked like lots of fun. Alas, riders must be 14 years of age or younger. I’m still a little bitter about that.)
I didn’t grow up loving baseball, but I certainly married into it. Our wedding vows included the usual bits about sickness, health, and being richer or poorer, but I’m pretty sure someone also mentioned runners first and third and nobody out. And our daughters were raised going to games at stadiums across America, where they bought ridiculously expensive caps and learned to score a game properly. Never say we didn’t raise our kids right.
So over the last 37 years and change I’ve attended a lot of games in a lot of parks. Please don’t ask me which parks; I don’t remember. If you really need to know, talk to Mark. He keeps a list on his phone of the parks he has been to and the ones he still needs to see. He also has a list of bands we’ve seen, for bonus points.
I suppose I should be annoyed or concerned or sad or something that I can’t remember all of the parks I’ve been to. Our society places a premium on remembering, and for good reason. Knowing your name and your address and where your car keys are makes life much simpler. Too, having a good memory is essential for important life activities like the bar exam and pub trivia nights. And having recently spent time with a dear friend who is experiencing memory loss drives home how tough it is for all concerned when the brain fades. I get it.
At the same time, I think it’s possible to remember too much. We have all known people who can’t let go of old injuries, perceived or real. Of course, some traumas, such as abuse, linger in us in ways that are not easily put behind. But when you’re still visibly angry over an insult hurled at you in 1976 by someone who has been dead for over 30 years, a little constructive forgetting might not be such a bad thing.
This might apply to nations as well. I’m thinking here of a teenaged girl from Kosovo who lived with Mark’s aunt and uncle for a year during high school. This was during the most recent war in the Balkans. We invited uncle, aunt, and exchange student over for dinner. The girl and I chatted for a while, and finally she said to me, ”I feel like I can talk to you. I want to explain what is happening in my country.” Flattered, I told her I’d like to hear what she had to say. She straightened up from her teenager slump and started, ”It all started in 1389 at the Battle of the Field of Crows….” Honestly, I was too stunned by her opener to comprehend much of what came next. This girl, who was maybe 17, should in my book be thinking about school and friends and dating and university, not invasions 600 years in the past. I know I don’t understand what it’s like to be Serbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be a pretty carefree 17, and that’s not it. Sometimes you can remember too much.
Then, too, trying to gather everything you do into your memory can rob you of enjoyment of the present moment. For example, at many of the concerts Mark has on his list, we’ve stood next to people who spend the entire performance fiddling with their phones to get the best video or the perfect still photo. Enjoying the music and the fellow-feeling of being in a crowd at a concert gets lost when all you see is the lens of your own phone. Taking one picture and then putting the phone down may leave you with fewer memories, but it also allows for greater enjoyment. Pleasure, here and now, surely counts for as much as a photographic record of your experiences.
So I have no idea which ballparks I’ve been to, or who pitched on a given night, or which team had the best uniforms and concessions. But I do remember that I love Mark, and he loves baseball and me (not necessarily in that order), and that we’ve loved our times together at games. This is enough for me. I hope it is for you, too.
Or so says a T-shirt I saw last weekend – “Good girls go to Heaven/Bad girls go to Benidorm.”
For those not acquainted with Spanish party spots, Benidorm is a city on the Mediterranean coast, a little north of Alicante. Benidorm is a city of about 75,000 people, roughly 8% of whom hail from the United Kingdom. You can see that in the names of local establishments, such as “Beer’s Friend,” ”London Supermarket,” and ”Benidorm Yorkshire Pride.” A walk on the beachfront will give you lots of opportunities to hear English being spoken, largely by older folks with too few clothes and too much sun on board.
All of this has given Benidorm a reputation sort of like Atlantic City – people come to play (read, drink) and sit in the sun. The picture of a beachfront bar gives you some idea of what I mean. This, in turn, means that lots of hen parties and stag parties take place in Benidorm on any given weekend. A couple of years ago Mark and I took a Ryan Air flight (which is always a questionable choice) from Bristol, England to Alicante, the airport that serves Benidorm. Stupidly, we took a late afternoon flight on a Thursday. Our fellow passengers included a stag party dressed in T-shirts featuring a photo of the groom on the toilet, which ought to give you a clue about how the flight went. Although honestly the stag partiers behaved better than the members of the senior men’s rugby team, who were drunk when they boarded the plane and even drunker when they got off. One team member came and sat on Mark’s lap so he could talk to his friend in the seat ahead, which I put the kibosh on by telling him that I was the only person who got to sit there. Sigh. This weekend we were treated to the sight of a groom roaming the beachfront in an inflatable penis costume. Sigh again.
So Benidorm can be a bit, um, overwhelming, and parts of it downright cheesy (so much so that there’s even a British TV show about it). In fact, I was a little skeptical the first time a friend suggested an outing there. But it just goes to show that, if you’re not too high and mighty to try something, you might just end up enjoying yourself a lot. We’ve found that one fun thing to do is to go to the Benidorm Palace, where tribute bands regularly play shows for sell-out crowds of folks who come on coach (bus, to us Americans) tours. We have done now this twice with our British friends Lynne and Tony and had a ball both times.
Take last weekend. We went with them on a coach tour to see The Manfreds perform at the Palace. We all sang along to such greats as ”Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and ”Pretty Flamingo” and generally had a great time. We were on the young end of the age range on our bus; in fact, one woman who looked quite elderly and walked very slowly, even with a walker, came along. At first I was skeptical about her ability to manage, but this gal had spunk and style. She showed up for the festivities dressed in a sequined blue and purple dress that glittered when she walked. Her ensemble was completed by sparkly hair combs and orthopedic sandals. She toddled gamely through the evening and looked to be having a blast.
So that’s my wit and wisdom on Benidorm, which is expansive enough to accommodate inflatable penis costumes and little old ladies with glittery dresses and sturdy shoes. To which I say, long may it wave!
I don’t mean that we are being bombed or shot at, or even that we are threatened in any physical way. To suggest that our situation is anywhere near that of the Ukrainians is ridiculous and, honestly, insulting to them (Boris Johnson!). But the terrible Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected our piece – and our peace – here, as it has all around the world.
I’ve actually been to Ukraine. In 1983, my big trip after the bar exam was to what was then the Soviet Union. It was a legal study tour, and it was fascinating. We visited Moscow, Kyiv, Baku (Azerbaijan), Yerevan (Armenia), and Tbilisi (Georgia). I remember liking Kyiv a lot. It had nice parks with lovely flowers blooming, and the food was quite good. The people were much friendlier than in Moscow. The dislike of Russia was no big secret. I remember one tour guide pointing out a large statue of a man seated on a horse; it was supposed to symbolize the bonds between Ukraine and Russia. The guide explained that the Ukrainians had carefully situated the statue so that the horse’s rear end pointed directly at Moscow. We all had a good laugh.
I bet there’s not a lot of laughing going on now in Kyiv.
Here in Spain, virtually every city has relief efforts for Ukraine and Ukrainians underway. Truck convoys carrying food and medical supplies leave almost daily. Fundraisers abound. And we have refugees – many, many refugees. Facebook is full of requests for shelter, clothing, and language assistance. There’s a story behind every request, and heartbreak in every story. It’s wrenching to read. Mark had occasion the other day to go to the Ukrainian Assistance Agency that has been set up here in Torrevieja. He said that a mass of people stood outside, waiting to get in and see if they could get help settling in here in our little coastal haven. It is impossible for me to imagine what these people must feel.
A change has come to our local spirit as well. Torrevieja typically has a lot of Russians in it, especially in the winter. In fact, many businesses around here fly the flags of various countries where their customers hail from. Just a few months ago, you would have seen the Russian flag – horizontal stripes of red, blue, and white, from bottom to top – at many establishments around town. But now the Russian flags are gone. Witness the car dealership pictured above. The Russian flag has been replaced by the multi-starred flag of the European Union. Our war, it seems, is about the flag that isn’t there.
Its been a while since I blogged. That’s certainly not for lack of material about which to write! on a personal level, Mark and I have been very busy. We took a bucket list trip to Greece. We traveled to England, where we attended a beautiful wedding, saw a couple of plays in the West End, and walked the white cliffs of Dover. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with our kids and granddaughter. We have gathered to delight in the company of friends and mourned the passing of others. Our lives have been full and busy.
The broader world hasn’t been still, either. Our planet has grappled with the Omicron variant, which a year ago I would have guessed was a Clive Cussler novel. Many of us have gotten booster vaccinations; others await their first doses, and still others refuse to see what the problem is here. We’ve learned how to Wordle, if that’s a verb. And now, of course, Russia has cruelly invaded Ukraine, bringing us closer to a third world war than I can remember being in my lifetime.
I think Mark’s shirt, which is pictured below, says it all. Dang.
In the midst of this whirlwind of activity, though, some things remain the same. On Wednesday night, for example, Mark and I attended Ash Wednesday services at our home church, First United Methodist Church of Austin. Ash Wednesday services usher in the liturgical season of Lent, which is a time of self-examination and repentance. As you can imagine, then, Ash Wednesday services are not exactly jubilant. Their highlight is the imposition of ashes, where the congregants walk up to the minister and have a cross made of ashes traced onto their foreheads. Interestingly, if you’re into this sort of thing, the ashes are the burned remains of the palm fronds used at the previous Palm Sunday services. Reduce, reuse, recycle, right?
Here’s another tidbit for you, though: palm fronds are the dickens to burn. I know this because Mark and I tried it. As usual, I instigated the shenanigans. We were in Spain, surrounded by lots and lots of lovely palm trees. (FYI, palms are not native to Spain; the Moors brought them from Africa.) If we were not able to attend church in person on Ash Wednesday because of Covid, wouldn’t it be cool, I said, to have ashes from the palms here? Mark, being a sport, agreed to give it the old college try.
Putting the venture together was actually not that difficult. We found some palm fronds that were already down – no palms were harmed in the making of this fiasco – and had a cigarette lighter left by a long-ago tenant in our apartment. We found a metal bowl and cut off pieces of palm to put in it. Piece of cake, I thought. I took the bowl out on the balcony and put the flame to the palm frond pieces.
We tried everything. We cut smaller pieces and bigger pieces of palm. Nope. We tried matches instead of the lighter (Because the fire might be different? I totally don’t remember why that seemed like a good idea). Nil. We tried different bowls and blowing on the frond pieces and arranging them in a teepee shape. Zilch. I tried singing a song I learned in Campfire Girls in 1965. Nada.
I don’t recall how, but we finally got the edges of one piece of frond to burn for about six seconds. The resulting ash wouldn’t remotely have been enough for the upright of the cross on one forehead, let alone two crosses, but we were over this venture by this point. I packed the ashes away in a pill box, and we cleaned up the evidence of our folly.
So we didn’t have our own ashes last year, and I honestly don’t recall whether we were able to get them in church. But here’s what I did learn: those fronds are tough. Try as you might, it’s hard to reduce them to ashes, to destroy their basic structure. And in the midst of yet another crazy, stressful year, I’m hoping that I’m like the fronds – tough, unwilling to break down easily. In fact, I’m hoping that for a lot of people: the Ukrainians, the folks who are sick (yes, there are still a lot of them) with Covid, the people who are grappling with the losses the last few years have brought. There are a lot of them – of us – to be wishing that for.
So that’s my fondest wish for you today, dear reader. Or maybe I should say its my frondest wish. Right now, they are one and the same.
Consumer product warning: This is not a picture of my birthday cake. This is a stock image I grabbed off the internet. But the candles are like the ones my mom used to put on my birthday cakes, so that’s close enough. This picture also made me think about all the used birthday candles that Mom carefully collected in a drawer in the kitchen at my parents’ house. After our folks died, we sold the house with a ton of stuff still in it, including the used birthday candles. Did the buyer just shake her head when she opened that drawer? I wonder sometimes.
In case you’re wondering now – about where this is going, I mean, and not about the candles – I’m writing about birthdays because yesterday was mine. I turned 63, which means I am now three times as old as I was when the laws of the state of Texas declared me to be an adult. FYI, I spent most of my birthday dinner last night scribbling with crayons on the butcher paper covering our table. The waiter was very amused when I asked for crayons, but he correctly figured he’d get a bigger tip if he brought them to our table. The state may need to rethink its maturity markers.
By the way, my 21st birthday was really great. At that time, you could drink and vote at 18, so this day was more symbolic than life-changing. But my college friends threw me a party, which was my first birthday party not of my parents’ making. It felt momentous! If you were there, thanks again. If not, you missed a great party.
You may be thinking by now that having a birthday on January 4 stinks, since it’s just after the holidays, so people are no longer in the mood to celebrate. They’ve sung ”Auld Lang Syne” and have no desire to launch into ”Happy Birthday.” There is some truth in that, and there were several years when we went back to school on my birthday. I admit, that stank. But mostly I really like my birthday. The mercenary roots of this sentiment lie in the fact that my mother was a soft touch. Every year, she would buy in December for Christmas and my birthday and declare herself done. Then she’d start feeling sorry for me because I had a birthday on such an unfortunate date and put all of those presents under the tree. She would then shop the Christmas sales, where she would buy twice as much since everything was half off. I had extremely well-equipped Barbies.
And I’ve had some pretty stellar birthdays since then. For my 40th, Mark, Jane, Mary, and I flew to Cancun, stayed at a lovely resort, and saw the truly spectacular remnants of Chichen Itza. For my 50th, the family told me were taking a trip but wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I packed by placing three piles on the bed: one to take anywhere, one to take to a cold climate, and one to take to a warm climate. We ended up spending four days in San Francisco, staying at the Mark Hopkins and having a blast.
This birthday was a little quieter than those were. This was my third Covid birthday, so I was prepared with a great library book and a pair of soft pajamas to lounge around in. Mark and I took a walk in the sunshine, and we toddled out in the evening for the afore-mentioned Italian dinner. But of course the best part was getting lots of lovely birthday greetings from friends and family. I heard from a ton of people, which was great fun. The funniest was a gif sent by a pal in Spain, who texted me a Smurf singing the birthday song in Spanish. It is truly hilarious, and some of you may receive it yourselves this year. Reduce, reuse, recycle!
Look, I know that an early January birthday isn’t optimal. Like I said, when I was a kid, we went back to school on my birthday several times. People are a bit partied out. Decorations are either down or bedraggled. Many people who’ve resolved to lose weight refuse an offer of cake, which they wouldn’t do a week later. And I miss my mom calling me to tell me the story of the day I was born, and how she wisely decided to skip teaching Sunday School that morning and that the delivery room was really cold. I know all this, and yet I still love my birthday. It comes with good memories and, at this age, a little bit of perspective. Remember that good stuff. Focus on what you have. Savor the small joys. Be grateful for every single time someone cares enough to wish you well. And bear in mind that some birthday will arrive without you around to celebrate it, so try to give others good memories along the way.
I’m going to close by recounting a discussion that took place in the summer of 1978. I can fix the date precisely because I was talking to a guy who had a summer job at the same place I did. We got onto the subject of birthdays, and he allowed as how he hated his and wished he’d been born just about any other time. I told him I really liked mine and was glad I’d been born then. And you know what? It turns out our birthdays were the same day. So happy birthday a little late, Mike, and auld lang syne to boot.
My bucket list contains very few items, but a trip to Greece has been at the top for many years. The yen to see Greece started when I was a kid. Ive forgotten how I came to own a copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, but acquiring that tome changed my life. I devoured the tales of thunderbolt-throwing Zeus, wing-sandaled Hermes, and the mighty huntress Artemis. Demeter and I wept over the kidnapping of Persephone and rejoiced at her return, and I marveled at Athena’s cleverness in creating the olive tree and her small-mindedness in fighting for the Greeks against the Trojans when Paris, Prince of Troy, refused her bribe and named Aphrodite the fairest of the goddesses. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this: this book is beautifully written and illustrated, and it gives you the good, the bad, and the ugly about Greek myths.
So half a century and change later, Mark and I have spent the last three weeks in Greece. My friend Carie McKinney told me before we left that this country is magical, snd she’s spot on. Where else do you walk where Socrates queried his students, touch stones so large that the ancients declared they could only have been hoisted to make walls by Cyclopes, and scramble up graveled paths in cities that Homer described in the Illiad and the Odyssey? It’s been absolutely blissful.
But the Greece of today is pretty special, too. The people here have been nothing but friendly and very encouraging when we deployed our feeble Greek. (Shout out here to Sally Watkins, our travel agent extraordinaire, who not only planned and booked this mega-trip but tucked in a sheet of useful Greek words and phrases. Sally is amazing!) Mark studied ancient Greek in college and can actually decipher a few signs and menu items, but I will call this excursion a linguistic success if my vocabulary list reaches double digits. And my dears, the food! Spanikopita and moussaka and souvlaki and baklava – and eggplant dishes to die for and cheeses and yogurt with sour cherries and orange cake soaked in honey…. You get the idea. And this doesn’t even touch the joys of shopping in crowded stores opening onto narrow, twisting cobbled lanes, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from the rooftop hot tub, swimming out from rocky beaches into the Agean and Ionian seas, or cruising Greek isles with our friends Lynne Campbell and Sherry Lesikar. And I’ve only scratched the surface here!
But while a Greek vacation may be idyllic, it is not perfect. For one thing, the entire country is uphill both ways. Greece is the world’s most scenic stairmaster. If you’re coming here, take a step class beforehand and pack Advil. Too, the plumbing appears to be a bit wobbly. It’s wise to ask whether you can drink the tap water, even in major cities, and there are more toilet stalls than not with signs exorting you to throw the toilet paper in the bin and not the potty. In fact, I currently feel vaguely guilty about throwing TP in the toilet in our high class hotel here in Athens. But perhaps the worst thing about Greece is that you’re acutely aware that you’re doing exactly what a zillion tourists have done before you – and, sometimes, at exactly the same time as you, with the odd motor scooter thrown in just to make things more interesting. You’re taking the same photo of where the Colossus of Rhodes used to be that millions of people have taken. You’re laboring up marble steps at the theater at Epidauros that have been trod by several hundred people the day you were there. You’re clapping your hands and listening to the echo in the beehive tombs at Mycenae just like all of the people before you and all of the people after you. It would be possible to feel just a little sad at how cookie cutter you are.
So instead, you have to work to make Greece your own. And if you succeed, you savor those moments. Happily, we had lots of them. For example, there’s video on Facebook of one of them, when Mark took advantage of the acoustics at the theater at Epidarous and sang ”The Impossible Dream” to the applause of delighted spectators. Some moments are more fleeting, like our laughter when we discovered we were driving on the Poseidon Interchange on the highway from Corinth to Athens. (This god gets around; he also has a campground near the ruins of Tiryns.) We took pictures of some, like Hercules Rent-a-Car (clearly a second career choice for the hero) and epic food experiments, like Greek coffee (fail) and honeycomb (big win). But the most personal Greek moment is pictured above. In case you were wondering, it’s a picture of an Albanian family at a Greek restaurant.
Honestly, I took this shot on what had started out as a less than stellar evening. We were in Nafplio, which is nice enough but nothing to write home about. The hotel was difficult to find, probably because it’s not on a street, and we had to schlep three bags and three backpacks down three flights of slippery stone steps AT NIGHT. Our room was fine, but the bathroom smelled like mildew. We opened the doors to the balcony to air out the room and clambered down 50 mores steps (Mark counted) to find some dinner. We ended up at an Italian place, which was fine, except the “pizza with no meat” had bacon and sausage on it. The proprietor gamely apologized and went for a replacement, but by this time I was ready to use the one cry per vacation I allow myself. But that’s when the Kingdom of God showed up.
Here’s a little context, because I know that the Gospels aren’t everyone’s bag. Particularly in Matthew, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God, which I interpret as what happens when we follow God in our hearts and our actions, to various ordinary things. The Kingdom, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed, a farmer sowing his crops, yeast, and other commonplaces. Notably, Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to piles of gold, kings, armies, celebrities, or beautiful or rich people.
With that information, return to the Greek restaurant with me. As we wait for pizza 2.0, I notice an older man and woman steering a woman in a wheelchair down the bumpy stone street. The woman in the wheelchair is maybe 40, and she has a body that is contorted in unusual angles. She also is missing most of her teeth. But she’s smiling, as are the man and the woman. They sit down at a table one away from us; at the table in between, another, younger couple quietly eats gyros. I think that’s about all that’s going to happen, but then a tall guy comes up to the threesome, greets them happily and loudly, and sits down with them. Then a small, wiry, deeply tanned older man who’s straight out of Central Casting for a Greek fisherman, plops himself down at the end of the table and, all smiles, starts talking rapidly and cheerfully. And then, one by one and two by two, about 20 people gather at the table. Hugs and kisses are exchanged. The woman in the wheelchair gets everyone’s first kiss and hug, and she returns them all enthusiastically. Concerns about Covid aside, this is a genuinely beautiful love fest, especially when somebody shows up with a baby girl to pass around, which starts a new round of kissing and laughing and loud talking. The people around the table don’t look alike; they range from my fisherman to a dyed blond in a white miniskirt to a grandmother who’s about as big around as she is tall to a lanky twenty-something guy with glasses and scruff who is running around with his phone taking pictures and recording video. Wine, beer, and food appear, and before our eyes a festival, a celebration of love and togetherness, unfolds.
The reactions of those around the celebrants is fascinating. The couple with the gyros looks self-conscious and uncomfortable; they gobble the last of their food and toss down some Euros so that they can leave as fast as possible. A beggar girl – Greece has a lot of beggars, and this one looks to be about eight years old – shyly approaches the happy table; she stares with big brown eyes at the group and tentatively holds out her plastic cup. The partygoers put money in and smile at her, evoking a shy smile in return. We put some coins in her cup, too. She leaves, and then up comes the musician you see in the picture. He sings in Greek, a happy, fast song that makes the partiers laugh and clap their hands. They put money in his cup, too, and he goes on his way smiling before we can chip in.
And what about us? My blues are gone, swept away by the sights and sounds of people loving life and each other and anyone else who happens by. Mark and I eat our new, correct pizza and pay our bill, exchanging occasional smiles with the revelers. As we are leaving, Mark tapped the guy with the phone on the shoulder and asked if he would like us to take a picture of everyone at their table, and the man handed him the phone. The partiers looked up and smiled widely. Mark took photos and handed the phone back to its owner. A quick check of the screen brought a broad grin to the guy’s face. ”Oh, these are the best yet!” he exclaimed, and he asked us where we were from. He declared his love for the USA upon hearing our answer, and he explained that his family is from Albania but lives in Greece now. We smiled and waved our goodbyes to the happy group and headed back to the 50 steps up to the hotel. But the climb doesn’t seem as arduous as it was on the way down, and our hotel room smells fresher when we open the door. I think it’s because we saw something like the kingdom of God at that restaurant. Everyone was welcome, the old and the young, the able and the more challenged, the smartly-dressed and the shabby. The beggar got money, and music was made. Some people didn’t know what to do with the hubbub and left, but we contributed just a tiny bit and got radiant smiles and happy goodbyes from the partygoers in return. And we were the better for it.
I know the language about kingdoms is sexist, and I know that most of what I love about Greece is what all travelers here love. So I’m a little hypocritical and a lot trite here. But we had a unique moment on this trip, and I’m happy to get to share it with you. Maybe what I’m really saying is that the Kingdom of God, for me, is like a blog post being read by a friend: it’s a love letter and an invitation. Come sit at table with me, in Greece or wherever, and let’s celebrate!
And just like that, Mark and I are back in Spain. As many times as I’ve flown over the years, it never ceases to amaze me that you can start the day on one continent and end it on another.
In addition to unpacking our suitcases over the last few days, we’re also been unpacking several boxes and bins that have been in our storage room since our departure in March. We rented out our apartment this summer, which generated a nice bit of cash. But of course we couldn’t leave our personal things in a rental, so away it all had to go. I still haven’t found the bath mats, but life is full of little mysteries like that. Anyway, we’re mostly done now, but it’s been a long few days. So today we knocked off for a while and went swimming – floating, mostly – in the Mediterranean.
We didn’t have to go far; a little beach lies just about 150 yards from our building. We strolled there after the sun had begun to lower in the sky, which was the prettiest shade of blue and adorned with fluffy, white clouds. We had a grand time and felt refreshed in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s like being rehydrated inside and out. One of my favorite parts is when the salt water settles on your lips and you lick it off. It’s like something in your body recognizes that taste, that tang. I don’t know. Maybe that happens because our kind began its journey in such water, with the first amino acids making funny, insignificant chains in the vast seas of a younger Earth. And later, each of us floated in our mothers’ wombs before being born. Maybe our body remembers and rejoices in the gentle roll of the waves; maybe our cells cry out in delight at the familiar feel.
But as lovely as contemplating water at the beginning of life may be, the water today made me think about its end. This wasn’t a morbid concern about drowning; where we were, the water only comes up to your waist if you stand up in it. No, I was thinking about the fact that the water we were in has existed across space and time, endlessly recycling by way of evapotranspiration. Today a certain drop of water was in the Mediterranean, but two weeks ago it might have been in China. Two hundred years ago, it might have been part of a rainstorm that watered my ancestors’ crops in Connecticut. Two thousand years ago it may have been in a goblet of wine that Cleopatra drank while toasting Julius Caesar. Two million years ago a Homo erectus may have stared at its face in a pool containing my water drop. Two hundred million years ago that drop may have been in one of the ponds appearing between the chunks of Pangea that were slowly moving apart. And perhaps in twenty years, but certainly in two hundred, the drop of water that entered me when I licked my lips will have to be somewhere else than in me, be I won’t exist any more. The water will, though.
And that led me to wonder about how we talk about the end of life. In church, when we contemplate our mortality, we talk about “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” This makes sense on some level, because ashes and dust are about all that’s left after a body deteriorates. But we’ve skipped a step here! When a plant or an animal dies, its body, its physical being, dries out (witness what may be in your refrigerator right now!). The water leaves – and then it moves back into circulation. It goes down a drain or into a pipe or into the ground. And then it joins another body, or a rain cloud, or a lake. Maybe it seeps into an aquifer and hides underground in a slow-moving journey through porous rock laid down millions of years ago. And maybe, just maybe, it finds its way to the Mediterranean, where it lands on the lips of a happy woman floating under blue skies and puffy white clouds on a Sunday afternoon.
So what I’m saying is this: maybe instead of thinking about ashes to ashes, we could think of our lives and our deaths as water to water. We are not ultimately dry and brittle bits to be blown away by the first puff of wind to come along. No, we’re water to water, endlessly moving and nourishing and giving life. And I’m grateful for that.