Questions, Questions

Image by Coral Southwell

My book club recently read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a novel by Jamie Ford. As a child in World War II Seattle, the main character is forced to wear a button declaring “I’m Chinese,” to differentiate himself from the enemy Japanese.

One of our members asked, “If you had to wear a button, what would it say?” What word or two would define who you are?

We answered around the table. The first person said “Irish,” the second “Dutch.” Things took a more philosophical turn when people answered “optimism” and “I’m here now.”

I pondered how to identify myself: “I’m an American.” “I’m a Texan.” That draws too many borders between me and others. “I’m a human being.” Too limiting. I declared: “I’m a spiritual being.” I changed my answer, though. “My button has a question mark.”

Questions have defined my life. As a curious child, I badgered my parents, asking about everything. As a journalist, I’ve spent my adult life asking questions of strangers, sometimes questions I have no business learning the answers to, personal information that nobody should reveal except to their spouse. You’d be surprised how many people don’t realize they aren’t required to answer.

All along, I’ve had more questions than answers about the nature of existence. Of the journalistic five W’s and the H (who, what, when, where, why and how), I’ve usually thought “why” was the most interesting.

And now, I’m curious. What would your button say?

Posted in Philosophy | 9 Comments  

Taking Flight

Photo by Guillermo Bobadilla

I wrote this shortly after returning from Nicaragua last June. You can read my story about this amazing country at, digital version, Page 94 of the May 2011 issue.

I said I would never bungee jump. I didn’t say anything about ziplines.

So here I am, harnessed to a cable above a Nicaraguan forest, ready to flit through some of the most splendid tropical vegetation I’ve ever seen. And I’m afraid of heights.

But I’m not thinking about that now. I’m remembering what a friend told me shortly before I was invited on this American Airlines press trip, how she’d ziplined in Costa Rica and was too scared to open her eyes.

I will open my eyes. I will experience this adventure to the fullest.

Am I nuts? I just turned 60, the cusp of the next phase of my life. The magazine I was working for folded, and I wondered, what happens next? I considered retiring. Instead, I’m opening my own business, Pegasus Editing, and embarking on a sideline as a travel writer. All my adult life, I’ve been tethered to a steady job. Now, as a freelancer, I’m ready to soar.

I hoist myself up so the guide can hook me to the first of 17 cables in this mile-and-a-half-long sequence. I recall the instructions: Right leather-gloved hand on the cable, brake by squeezing the cable, feet up to avoid hitting the platform. The guide in front will signal, come on or slow down.

Remember to open my eyes.

A zipline is a system of sturdy cables zigzagging down from tree to tree, often in a rain forest, or a dry tropical forest like this one.

I first witnessed the mountaineering/military invention in the 1992 Sean Connery movie Medicine Man. The characters sail dreamlike through the treetops, awed at the wonder of nature. It didn’t occur to me then that such a contraption would become a tourist attraction or that I would ever take flight on one.

At Da Flying Frog above San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, the first line is short and pretty much horizontal. The guide gives a gentle shove, and I coast to the platform.

The lines get longer, steeper. To the left, there’s the glorious blue of the Bay of San Juan del Sur. To the right, a stream cascades over the rocks. The only time the guide ever signals me, it’s “Come on.” But I’ve slowed down deliberately, to savor the waterfall.

As I zip down the mountain, I gaze at the tree canopy and the earth far below. I marvel, “I’m not afraid.” I’m too busy enjoying myself. Every time somebody takes a picture, I’ve got a big grin on my face.

I still feel like I’m standing on a precipice. I can’t predict the estimated final third of my life, but I’m strapped in for the ride.

The last cable is short and easy, like a clothesline.

“OK,” I tell the guide. He turns me loose, and I fly.

Posted in Fear, Travel, Writing | 10 Comments  

The Minimalist Cat

Dulcie requires minimalism.

Not for her. For me.

My sweet little cat, whom you may have met earlier on this blog (“Sweet Terror, Dec. 6, 2010, and “Decorating With Cats,” Dec. 15, 2010), has had me undecorating my house.

First to be packed away was a kilim rug from Afghanistan, about 75 years old. She tried to shred  it.

Next was a weaving of delicate Thai silk covering a little table. She rumpled it, pulling a thread, which I later unpulled.

Elegant hand-hammered pewter vessels, a little pitcher holding my mother’s paintbrushes, a Tibetan prayer wheel, framed artworks, a jar of vintage pens, papers on my desk: all toys, to Dulcie. All stored for now, until she grows up and settles down.

I was already in the process of decluttering my home, and the simpler it looks, the better I like it.

Please understand, my idea of achieving minimalism doesn’t involve stashing artworks and memorabilia indiscriminately in cupboards and drawers. Rather, it requires the discipline of decision, of choosing what goes and what stays.

I’d just like to be the one to choose.

Posted in Cats, Decorating, Minimalism | 10 Comments  

Communion, Isolation and Ice

I dreamed of arriving late for church, just as Communion was being served. I knelt at the altar rail to receive the sacrament, but the priest passed me by. I felt frustrated; Communion was what I had come for.

Communion denied. What does it mean?

I’d been housebound for three days, denied communion with other living souls by the ice on my little lake road. I had everything I needed at home, except human companionship.

Maybe it isn’t about isolation, but rather, about my undisciplined spiritual quest. My meditation is sporadic, church attendance even more so. Maybe it isn’t the church, or the priest, or the spirit that’s passing me by, but me who’s neglecting them. In the dream, I made a half-hearted attempt at religion: I wasn’t on time.

The winter of the spirit? Among Nordic runes, there’s one called “Isa.” Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes defines it as “standstill, that which impedes, ice.” He lists it next-to-next-to-last, just before those symbolizing wholeness and the unknowable. “[T]his is the fallow period that precedes a birth . . . . Trust your own process, and watch for signs of spring.”

I still don’t understand the dream. Maybe I’ll meditate on it.

Posted in Dreams, Philosophy, Religion | 8 Comments  

It’s a Long Way to Tucumcari

I recently stopped into the nearest java joint for a cup of caffeine. A barista admired my travel coffee mug, which to my taste seems a bit garish.

On a trip to New Mexico last summer, I found myself drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups. That doesn’t taste good to me, and it grates on my environmental sensibilities to use things once and throw them away. 

So, en route to Santa Fe, I pulled in at a Love’s truck stop just over the Texas state line. I bought the only ceramic mug with a design I could relate to, one with an upbeat musical theme: piano keyboards, saxophones, guitars and treble-clef signs, in orange, aqua, black and chartreuse.

The barista back home asked where I had bought it.


“Where’s that?”

“New Mexico.”

“Sounds like it might be in Ireland.”

What does she know? I thought. She’s probably never been to Ireland.

I puzzled over the remark for hours, pondering the names of places I’ve traveled in the Emerald Isle: Ballinasloe, Connemara, the Burren, Galway. Those names don’t sound anything like “Tucumcari.”


Sometimes I think I’m so smart. What took me so long to figure it out?

Maybe I needed another jolt of java.

Posted in Ireland, New Mexico, Travel | 12 Comments  

Gratitude, Part 2

For years, I’ve kept a haphazard gratitude journal. I sporadically write down things I’m thankful for, even quirky little things that make me laugh. For my first blog entry of 2011, I thought I’d share a few from last year:

  • Playing “The Eighth of January” on the fiddle on the eighth of January
  • A town called Ding Dong in Bell County, Texas
  • A magnificent bald eagle lighting on a tree across the road
  • Waking up and knowing it’s going to be a great day
  • A warm house on a cold morning
  • Breakfast tacos, free gospel music and great people watching in Austin
  • Trees leafing out; daffodils, jonquils, redbud, Bradford pear, wild plum and grape hyacinths in bloom
  • Perugina bittersweet chocolate
  • A magnificent wildcat running across the road in front of my car
  • Amazing travels to California, Nicaragua, New Mexico and Italy
  • The haunting, descending whinny of a screech owl
  • Riding in the 28-foot Spanish-galleon parade float my neighbor and his buddies built
  • The Chilean miners all getting out alive
Posted in Gratitude, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Travel | 10 Comments  

Decorating With Cats

It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas.

I knew decorating would be a challenge this year. To my new little kitty, Dulcie, everything’s a toy. I’d have to be creative.

I dragged boxes of ornaments down from the attic. Dulcie wasn’t afraid of the creaky attic stairs, but she was no help whatsoever when I needed somebody to hand the boxes to.

Digging through the containers (and closing them before she could pounce on their fragile contents), I separated out all the indestructible wood and metal ornaments. I’d pile them into — what? Not the glass salad bowl; I could already hear it shattering, batted off the table.

I know. The antique brass spittoon, which, as a child, I regularly polished with vinegar and salt. I haven’t done that in decades. But for Christmas, it needed to shine.

I must have had a stronger arm as a child. This time, not a glimmer until I got out the metal barbecue-grill-cleaning brush. My fingers and knuckles got scoured, too, as red as Rudolph’s nose.

Strands of lights and ropes of golden beads — I could swag them, entwined, above the bookcase, out of Dulcie’s reach. If only she’d stop attacking the garland. Eventually I won the tug-of-war. Now my office looks like some sleazy Texas dive, where they hang Christmas lights behind the bar and leave them up year-round.

But the lights glow warm and festive, and Dulcie hasn’t completely dismantled the arrangement of ornaments. Yet.

Now for wrapping presents. Dulcie can’t wait.

Posted in Cats, Christmas, Decorating | 6 Comments  

Sweet Terror

There’s a wildcat in my house, and I’m scared.

The wildcat is a half-grown tabby with an overlay of vague calico splotches, a foundling from down the road. Her name is Dulcie, for “sweet.” She’s very sweet, when she purrs on my lap or naps in the sun or listens beside me while I play the violin.

Then she goes into manic mode, racing fierce-eyed, careening off furniture and walls, arching turning in mid-air, growling at unseen enemies.

That’s not what scares me. My fear is that this soft, furry invader of my home will likewise invade my heart. That I’ll love her too much, that she’ll leave me too soon, like the two before her and the one before that and others before them. I love, and they die or disappear, and it hurts altogether too much.

Yet what can I do? This little wildcat will grow into a civilized feline being, and my heart will grow with her, and somehow, together, we’ll get by.

For now, though, she’s still a wildcat, and I’m still scared.

Posted in Cats, Fear, Love, Philosophy | 6 Comments  

Leaves of Three

I don’t like to kill things. Oh, I’ll occasionally swat at mosquitoes, but I prefer to deter the little bloodsuckers with citrus-oil repellent. I keep my kitchen meticulously clean so ants lack incentive to invade, thus sparing their little lives.

I don’t even like to kill plants. I’d rather mulch than pull weeds, although I’d rather pull weeds than spray them with chemicals.

I draw the line at poison ivy.

It isn’t that I think poison ivy is evil. I imagine that like the rest of nature, it’s just trying to get by — in this case, by inflicting an insanely itching rash. If somebody says, “What’s the big deal? It just itches,” I know they’ve never suffered from the “leaves of three.”

Most of the time, I “quickly flee.” Lately, though, the poisonous plant has been thoroughly out of control, banishing me from my waterfront and from the hill behind my house. Time to do battle.

With the foliage easily visible in its autumn gold and red, I attacked with professional-strength Roundup.

I don’t expect instant victory. Repeat applications are required; it’s an ongoing battle. I shall prevail.

Just don’t ask me about scorpions.

Posted in Nature | 9 Comments  


This week’s blog entry is another one that’s primarily photos. At this time of Thanksgiving in the United States, fall foliage is something to be thankful for. In North Central Texas, we can’t count on a splendid autumn. Many years, leaves turn brown and immediately fall off the trees. When we see some seasonal color, we rejoice.

Half these shots were taken near my house. For good measure, I’ve thrown in a few from my recent trip to Italy, where I also relished a glorious autumn.

For all this natural beauty, I give thanks.

Posted in Gratitude, Nature, Photography, Travel | 5 Comments