Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness: “The Jewish Nurse” Shares His Story

“Darkness,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Case in point: Ari Mahler. A friend recently shared the story of the nurse who treated the killer who had just shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue. In following up, I found this original story by Angelina Gibson on Nurse.org. I can’t tell it better than she can:

“In a country that is no longer shocked by mass murders and random shootings at places that should feel safe, from schools to synagogues to yoga studios, there is one act that has risen out from amongst the violence that is perhaps the most shocking act of all:

Kindness and compassion. 

Ari Mahler, an ER nurse from Pittsburg, was one of three Jewish doctors and nurses who cared for Robert Bowers, the shooter who killed 11 Jewish worshipers and injured 6 at the Tree of Life Congregation on October 27th. After Bowers, who had a long history of anti-Semitism and posted “I’m going in,” stormed into the synagogue and began shooting, a police shoot-out occurred and it’s thought that Bowers was shot by officers

As a result of his wounds, he was taken to Allegheny General Hospital to be treated, where Bowers continued his tirade against Jewish people, even reportedly shouting, “Death to Jews” as he was wheeled into the hospital. And it was at that moment, when a man so filled with hate that he murdered, that Mahler could have chosen so many paths in his role as a nurse. He could have declined the patient assignment, he could have hurled cruel words back, or he could have taken the patient but failed to care for him properly. 

Instead, Mahler chose to rise above hate and instead, cared for Bowers, in his own words, with “empathy.” 

In a revealing Facebook post, Mahler described how he was the Jewish nurse who cared for one of the country’s most hate-filled shooters and how the interaction with Bowers was a deliberate one meant to honor the lives that had been lost, not add to the hate that took them.

“I am The Jewish Nurse,” Mahler began his post. “Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, ‘Death to all Jews,’ as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.”

From Ari Mahler’s Facebook page

Mahler went on to describe how he was nervous for writing up a post on what happened with Bowers, noting his past growing up Jewish, with a father who was a Rabbi, and experiencing anti-Semitism. 

“I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, ‘Die Jew. Love, Hitler.’,” Mahler explained. “It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.”

He then stated that sadly, he was not shocked by the fact that this shooting took place, mentioning today’s climate as one that “doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility… I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving,” he added. 

“ I WANTED HIM TO FEEL COMPASSION. I CHOSE TO SHOW HIM EMPATHY.”

And despite the fact that Mahler has been lauded a hero for his care of Bowers, he challenged the public sentiment who praised him because he is Jewish. 

‘I’m sure he [Bowers] had no idea I was Jewish,” he wrote. “Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?” 

HE DIDN’T SEE “EVIL”

Citing HIPPA, Mahler also added that he couldn’t reveal the specifics of his interaction with Bowers, but did say that when he looked into his eyes, he didn’t see “evil” and like the professional nurse that he is, he didn’t base his care for Bowers on who he was or what he had done. 

“I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone’s nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher,” he went on to say. 

LOVE

In the comment section of his post, Mahler received an outpouring of love and support for his actions and his care of the mass murderer, including from his fellow Jewish nurses. “As a Jewish nurse I applaud you for doing the right thing,” wrote Janet. “It is what we do. We may crumble later but we do our job and do it well.” 

For those who are wondering just why Mahler acted the way he did and chose to go public with his decision to treat a murderer with any shred of kindness at all, the nurse minced no words in explaining exactly why he did what he did:

“Love,” he said. “That’s why I did it.”

“Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

Amen. And thank you, Ari.

Pie (Decorating) Anxiety

“I’m scared of pie,” the founder of the bakery where I work once admitted when I asked her why we didn’t make it. And legend has it that the second thing I said to my new employer when she took over said bakery, after “Hi, I’m Gretchen,” was, “Can we make pie now?”

So what I’m saying is–I’m not scared of pie. In fact, I’m cocky enough to have blogged about my “pie secrets.” But still surprises me how many people do feel the pastry fear. Then I  a couple of weeks ago, I decided to get fancy and DECORATE my pie for a community harvest potluck, and I took a walk in the shoes of pastry fear.

Here’s the thing. I’m not scared of pie because I started making it when I was about twelve. Add forty-five years of pie making, and…ten thousand hours? Probably not hyperbole in this case.

But decorating? Never. Closest I ever got was to fashion a few generic leaves, maybe some berries, or stars for July 4. Easy-peasy blackberry piesy.

I think these are Doughtree leaves, from the family, uh, Crustia.

I’m wise smart old enough to stay off Instagram, but nonetheless, images of gorgeous pies have made their way to my brain via Facebook, and friends who know me as a Pie Woman. So I finally got ambitious stupid curious. How hard could this decorating thing be?

But as soon as I rolled out that top crust, my stomach clenched with anxiety. Should I stop here and go watch a video? Should I be rolling this onto wax paper? Why did I decide to diverge from my happy, thoughtless pie path?

Leaves. Okay. I got this. But not without help. And since the visual arts are not my strength, I decided to look up images of maple and oak leaves and then copy them onto cardboard as templates.

Did I mention visual arts are NOT my thing?

So far so…well, let’s go with “okay.” But it needs a little something more. Braids! Who can’t do braids? At least I didn’t have to google images for that.

Rustic is good. Rustic is good. It’s a PIE. Rustic is good.

Better. But let’s add a few o’ those trademark generic leaves, eh?

Cautiously optimistic…

OK. This is as good as it’s gonna get. Let’s bake this puppy!

Blackberry-strawberry, in case you were wondering.

Lessons learned:

a) Do use templates. Just cut them a little smaller next time. Or buy cutters in cute shapes. (But I’m too cheap for that.)

b) Do use wax paper to avoid mushing your cutouts. Chill or freeze them before applying.

c) Chill, but don’t freeze your braid strands. (Ever tried braiding frozen dough?)

d) Stay humble. In baking, as in life, there is always something to fear…and learn from.

Will I keep decorating pies? Probably, though only on occasion. I’m a happy imperfectionist, and pie is, in my opinion, meant to look rustic, so I don’t NEED to decorate. But I think it’s good for me to brush up against that fear now and then. And the compliments are nice too.

Speed Is My (Bicycle’s) Middle Name: Embracing the Electric Wheel

I owe an apology to every middle-aged person with an electric-assist bike. When they’d proudly show off their vehicle, I’d make all the polite noises, but here’s what I’d be thinking : “What are you, eighty? Why would you trade in perfectly good exercise for a free ride?”

That was a year of knee pain ago.

Since I haven’t been able to shake the pain (neither a torn meniscus nor arthritis–my doctor delivered the complicated diagnosis of, “Your knees are tired”) in 13 months, I have taken to walking my heavy bike, Dora the Explora*, up the steepest hills in order not to exacerbate the hurt. I hope to keep biking into my eighties, like my parents.

*Yes, I am a grownup who names vehicles, and large appliances too. No, it’s not in the least infantile. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not.

Then my friend Stephanie let me try her electric-assist bike around town, and I made a startling discovery: you can still ride hard in E-mode! In fact, you can gear UP going UPhill!

Whoa. I wants me some of that. So I went to my friendly neighborhood shop, Village Cycles, and they hooked me up–or Dora up. Literally.

Looks pretty much like a bike, right?

Look closer:

That’s the battery pack. Needs recharging about every 20 miles. But since I only use juice a minute at a time, usually…20 miles is forever!

Discerning eyes can spot a big difference in Dora’s front wheel:

Where the electricity meets the road!

Because I only want the E-assist on big hills, I opted for the most basic option: a tiny button which you have to hold down for the juice to flow. Let go–you’re back in regular mode. It’s a great way to keep the electric-zoom sessions short: my thumb gets tired!

Truly, though, I’ve found only three big changes to going semi-electric.

  1. Good: Pressing that magic button has taken all fear out of any potential route. I sometimes seek out hills now, just for the joy of riding hard up them without fear of too much knee stress. I think I’m getting a better workout than before!
  2. Bad: Dora has gained a lot of weight. Hefting her onto my bike rack is suddenly not a trifling thing.
  3. Ugly: I have to come to grips with my own pride. When fellow bikers, recognizing the battery pack & wheel, give me that knowing, condescending look, I cringe inside. That used to be me. And when someone now says to me, “Well, if Gretchen can use an e-wheel, then I guess it’s ok!” I have to fight the urge to blurt, “But it’s not because I’m trying to make it easier on myself!”

Except, of course, that’s exactly what I’m doing. For all the right reasons. I just have to get over my own macha-ness (kind of like when I had to get an epidural during my first childbirth and felt like a failure for not going drug-free). And that’s a pretty good workout too.

To celebrate my new acceptance of the E-life, I’ve given Dora a new middle name: Izumi. It’s a girl’s name, also associated with bikewear. And it fits: she IS zoomy now!

So if you see us zooming up a big hill and you know I’m mashing that button, you can say to yourself: “There goes a woman who’s learned a valuable lesson in humility. I wants me some of that.”

My Big Backyard, Part IV, Travels in British Columbia: And Now, For Something Completely The Same…AND Different!

I know, I just finished one trip to Vancouver Island, and satellite islands, in September. But when some dear old friends visiting from the east coast wanted to discover Canada, the Mate and I jumped at the chance to do some more discovery of the lovely land so ridiculously close to where we live.

We didn’t have time to go all the way to our happy place, Jasper, Alberta…that’ll be, we hope, next year. So we rented a house in Harrison Hot Springs, adjacent to a generous handful of Provincial Parks, and made daily forays.

Foray #1: Sasquatch Provincial Park. Just outside of Harrison Hot Springs. Probably a zoo in the high season. But in October, we had the place to ourselves.

VERY tempted to take a dip…if the air had been just a teensy bit warmer!

 

The backdrop: Manning Provincial Park. That’s tomorrow’s trip. Meanwhile, we had fun getting lost while trying to hike around Hick’s Lake. Dumb Americans.

I canNOT resist a good fungus shot. And why should I?

Foray #2: Salmon Spawning Channel. It’s October! The Pinks and Chum are coming home! This channel wasn’t as photogenic as a natural stream, but apparently it boasts a 12x survival rate of baby salmon, so…we were OK with it.

It’ll all be over soon, guys. Thanks for all your hard work.

Foray #3: E.C. Manning Provincial Park. I was especially interested in this one, as I’ve had several friends through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and Manning is its northern terminus. We didn’t get to that part of the park (the weather was hovering right above freezing and we weren’t thrilled about tackling ice in our friends’ little rental car), but we did take a nice hike past some waterfalls, punctuated by fall color.

Did I mention it was a rather foggy day up there?

Not aspen, but a relative: black cottonwood. Or so we were told. Doing its October job.

Foray #4: Golden Ears Provincial Park. This jaw-droppingly beautiful place (of which we only saw a fraction–it’s huge!) is less than 30 minutes outside Vancouver!

I don’t think these are the actual “Golden Ears,” but I’ll take ’em.

Think this waterfall is pretty? Just wait for…

…the pool above it! Words like “entrancing,” “emerald,” and “crystalline” come to mind. Sometimes cliches are apropos.

That was it for forays. Well, no, we did also explore the environs of Harrison Hot Springs itself, including a pretty wild, fern-dripping hike around the edge of Harrison Lake, but I didn’t have my camera with me. But I did go for a bike ride around the Fraser Valley one day, capturing some local sights, like…

…this cranberry bog! Didn’t know they grew in the Fraser Valley; our Washington cranberries are all out near the coast. Not pictured: field after field of blueberries, all in festive autumnal red.

It was easy for the Mate and me to feel right at home, amidst the red cedars, moss, salmon–“We have all that,” we told ourselves smugly. But then I saw this campaign sign:

“Please”???? When’s the last time you saw a US campaign sign say “Please”?

O for such civic civility! O my! O Canada…take me with you!

Fighting the Empathy Dearth: How Do We Feel What Has Not Been Ours To Feel?

Even a blind Republican could see that Brett Kavanaugh was lying last week…about his drinking history, at the very least. The sight so many powerful men choosing to ignore this professedly devout Christian’s breaking of the 9th Commandment filled me, like so many others, with disgust.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford swearing in (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But the root of their hypocrisy and misogyny is something more basic, and more troubling…a dearth of empathy. These men simply cannot see life through a woman’s eyes.

This may sound shocking, but guys–I understand. As a white person, I’ve been struggling for some time now to see our world, country, daily life for goodness’ sake! from the perspective of a person of color.

Empathy is HARD.

Empathy requires humility: “How much in the past have I unwittingly been part of the white supremacist structure?”

Empathy requires focus: “Imagine how Philando Castile’s family is feeling right now, as the President–ooh, shiny! Gotta revise my to-do list. Do I need to get milk?…wait, where was I? Oh yeah, Philando Castile…”

Empathy requires commitment: “I’m going to read this book/listen to this podcast/have this conversation even though it’s going to make me horribly uncomfortable about being white.”

And empathy requires change. What kind of change? Depends. Which means empathy also requires acceptance. Which brings us back to humility.

Not the dominant trait of white male Senators. It hasn’t had to be. What kind of humiliation have they ever experienced? I’m not talking about work performance or being rejected by a girl on the dance floor. When have they ever been humbled, brought low, much less threatened, because of their race and gender?

Individually, it appears possible to infuse empathy by trapping a lone white male Senator in an elevator. But there isn’t a big enough elevator for all the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and if there were more than one in there at a time, they’d just maintain eye contact with each other.

Out of ideas, out of elevators, I’m back to this: Empathy is hard, and I’m going to stick to my own work in that department. If you’re white and working on your own work, please read on.

I owe these excerpts to several women, who have passed them along: first, author Iris Graville. Second, author Heidi Barr, whose post Listen to Black Women Iris re-blogged. Third, and most importantly, author/teacher Layla F. Saad, whose post I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women was listed as a resource on Heidi’s blog.

Layla F. Saad, photo by Anter Blackbird on Saad’s blog

This passage from Layla Saad struck me especially as I think about the empathy dearth. Notice how many times she uses the word “imagine.”

…I am a black muslim woman. I carry within me both the experience from my own lifetime of racism and discrimination, and the collective trauma of belonging to a people who were slaves for centuries.

Last year… I remember reading about the witch burnings. And how, as women and modern day witches and priestesses, we carry this trauma of being burned with us even today. And how that fear holds us back from speaking up and being seen in our full wild mystic power. I see many women in the spiritual community who understand just how much of a trauma this is for women, and who are doing the deep work of healing the witch wound and reclaiming their right to be here in their full authentic presence.

But can you imagine how it is for people of colour?

Can you imagine the trauma we carry from centuries of slavery, police brutality, discrimination and racial hatred?

The witch burnings happened at one period of time and yet we still remember. Imagine how it is for black people and people of colour. The hateful treatment against us never ended. It just went underground. And now it is resurfacing, emboldened by leaders like Donald Trump and others like him.

This weekend the KKK marched without their hoods. Do you understand what that means?

Can you imagine if a powerful group rose up in the western country you live in who wanted to burn women as witches, and they were seen as being legitimised by the country’s president? That sounds ridiculous right? And yet an angry mob of KKK white supremacists just marched with burning torches screaming racist and anti-semitic slogans in Charlottesville USA this weekend. And Donald Trump and others have said too little, too late.

Can I imagine how it is for Black folks in this country? Not fully…but it is my responsibility to try. Can men imagine how it is for women in this country? Not fully…but it is their responsibility to try.

Anecdotes, personal stories…those seem to work better. Here’s one from Saad:

The house I grew up in, in Wales, was right next to a children’s park.

My brother and I would go there everyday by ourselves, especially when the weather was good, to play on the swings and slides. We loved that park.

But one day, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, a new boy started coming to play at the park.

And the first time I saw him, he sneered at me and told me that my skin was the colour of poop.

My face still feels red just thinking about it. I felt so ashamed. I couldn’t say a thing. All I felt was the shame of being in the skin that I was in. Of not being white like everyone else. I ran straight home with tears in my eyes.

After that day I refused to go to the park anymore without my mum. I never told her what happened. I felt too ashamed to even say it to her. I believed that everyone must be laughing at me and people who looked like me, because our skin looked like the colour of poop. I took that shame and buried it deep inside myself. I internalised this idea that I was other. That I was in some way, wrong. And that I was less than. And most damaging of all, that I did not deserve to be seen, because you know, my skin was the colour of poop. I recognise how ridiculous that sounds now, but as a 7 year old I took it as total truth.

As I make my way forward into this week, I will continue the work of empathy, creating my own “elevator moments” through reading and listening…and pondering the question, “How can we help someone feel what has not been theirs to feel?”

My (Even Bigger) Backyard, Part 3: British Columbia’s Big Ol’ Vancouver Island

Having checked out some of its wee satellites (Quadra and Cortes), we turned our attention to Vancouver Island itself, a mothership so vast it’s hard to remember it’s an island. (Although I suppose one could say that about our continent as well, eh?)

With only two days before our ferry home, we didn’t have time to head all the way over to the wild West Coast–that trip will have to wait. Instead, we bumbled into the easiest possible gateway to gorgeous: Strathcona Provincial Park, just west of Campbell River.

Our goddaughter had described her “best bike ride ever” a couple of years ago, along the shores of Buttle Lake in the park. That’s talking our language! In scrutinizing the map, we discovered Strathcona Park Lodge. And since it was now raining more or less continuously and we were no longer interested in campgrounds, we crossed our fingers and gave the lodge a try.

They had one cabin free.

“Tent, shment.”

They also had 180 Canadian teenagers staying on the grounds…because Strathcona Park Lodge, it turns out, is an Outdoor Education Center–I mean, Centre. In their own words, they are “a self contained community of more than 20 buildings, 50 or more staff and hundreds of guests. The entire operation is powered by a micro-hydro system, which means we’re highly sensitive to energy conservation. We also treat our own water and heat some of it with passive solar technology.”

Yup–we’d found our peeps. Those 180 teenagers? Not only did they get whisked away to spend their days hiking in the rain and learning to kayak, they also returned at night to tuck into a dining-hall meal that truly shocked us in its boldness: curried eggplant and lamb, with samosas and yogurt! Can you imagine American teens eating that? Good for you, Strathcona! Good for you, Canada!

[If I were the kind of person who takes pictures of food…but I’m not, so you’ll just have to imagine it.]

The second night we cooked, using our camp stove out on the cabin’s front deck, with this view.

This will do.

Nights were awfully cozy.

“Tent, shment.”

Oh, and that bike ride? As beautiful as described, going on for miles and miles and miles. (I mean kilometers.) AND relatively flat. I did one section with the Mate, and another alone, stopping to take pictures.

Looking into the interior, where the mountains rise to 7,000 feet.

Their version of the dogwood…and, I THINK, BC’s provincial flower (too lazy to fact-check this)

Don’t think I’ve ever noticed maples changing color outside-in like this.

The hiking was no more jaw-dropping than a hike in our own Cascades–like I’ve said before, I’m completely spoiled. But I did encounter some FANTASTIC fungi.

These guys usually have red caps! Is this the Black Panther version?

Who needs maple leaves when you have this?

The rare British Columbian Boobshroom in full fruit

On our way back to the ferry in Sidney, we made a few stops to smaller provincial parks. This one, Elk Falls, was a favorite–right outside Campbell River.

Elk Falls, falling.

Must…cross…suspension bridge over ridiculously deep gorge!!!

There’s a reason for those high side fences.

Returning home to the San Juans, we received a sunset reminder not to feel sorry for our vacation coming to an end.

Home.

O Canada! We’ll be back. As soon as possible, eh?

My (Even Bigger) Backyard, Part 2: British Columbia’s Cortes Island

I’ve been wanting to visit Cortes ever since reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favorite books of the last few years, and discovering that one of the two stories it winds together is set on Cortes. It seemed, if possible, even more Lopezian than Lopez Island, where I live.

Although we were only there for two days, I think I can safely say I was right. With under 2,000 year-round residents, Cortes is a quiet place in the off-season. Its beaches and forests looked like ours, only more so.

Looking northeast, toward the Sunshine Coast

Manson’s Landing–such a sweet spot!

Granted, I’ve never seen a 5-fingered Madrona, even on Lopez!

Nor do we have cedar trees anywhere near this old. OK, Cortes, you got us badly beat in the tree department, bless you.

But the thing that REALLY blew our minds on Cortes was…

…You know what? I’ll get to that in a moment. It was pretty jaw-dropping. So I need to save it for last.

Before then, I’ll share a few pictures from where we stayed. Like Quadra Island, the local provincial parks didn’t provide campgrounds, so we opted for the well-recommended Hollyhock Retreat Center. I mean Centre. It’s famous for multi-day classes in yoga and writing and history and, gosh, just about everything, but you can also just stay there. I was amazed at how reasonable their rates were: $180 per night for two people, with a shared bathroom (which we actually had to ourselves), all meals included. That’s Canadian dollars, so it was really less than $150 U.S.–and the meals alone were worth that! Hollyhock is entirely off-grid and produces nearly all its own pescatarian food. I’m not a taking-pictures-of-dinner kind of person, but here are a couple of shots from their garden, so you can just guess how amazing the food was.

Must…eat…kale!

I just could not make myself stop taking pictures of that garden. Anyone want to volunteer-garden there? Send in your application!

The view from outside our cozy room

One of many cool buildings on their forested campus…who wouldn’t want to study something in here?

No classes were going on the days we were at Hollyhock, which was fine with us. We just wanted to hike and bike around and get a feel for Cortes, which is what we did. Well–not so much the biking part. It’s VERY hilly there, and the one day we thought we’d try riding on the flatter parts, the wind was blowing 22 mph. But hiking, yes.

And that’s where we discovered…this.

Oh, it looks like bridge over just another creek. But that creek…

…is no creek at all–it’s the ocean! Rushing at very low tide from an inlet out to the bay…

…in a SALTWATER WATERFALL. A saltwaterfall! Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I’m not kidding! Those are barnacles growing there.

We were so gobsmacked by this, we actually tasted the water to convince ourselves it was indeed the ocean. A little jellyfish only confirmed the answer. Then we were overwhelmed by our luck in just happening to be there at low tide. Had we arrived another time, we might never have discovered this phenomenon.

And speaking of which, how amazing is it that we HAD never heard of this special saltwaterfall? Are they that common in BC? Or is that just Cortes Cool?

Because it is. Cool. Even beyond what I had imagined. So please, everyone–stay away in droves and keep it that way. 🙂

My (Even Bigger) Backyard, Part I: British Columbia’s Quadra Island

Last week we finally made time to visit with our neighbors. They’re nice people–just like us, actually, only nicer. Because they’re Canadians. In fact, our neighbor IS Canada. British Columbia, to be exact.

The Mate and I were embarrassed to say how little we knew Vancouver Island and the smaller islands between it and mainland British Columbia…given that we can literally see the nighttime glow of Victoria from our house, and on clear days, the mountains of the big island’s center. 

In the past eight years since we moved to within viewing distance, we have been to Vancouver Island exactly ONCE. Just to Victoria. Yes, we took our kids hiking on the West Coast Trail, but that was TWENTY YEARS AGO. And yes, we once visited friends on Denman Island, but that was THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO.

We were overdue for a visit.

As followers of Wing’s World know, my blog only occasionally morphs into Travel Blog mode, and even then, not the kind of travel blog with tips and descriptions of where to find the best artisanal meal. Over the next few posts, I’ll simply share some pictures and brief descriptions, and leave it to you to decide if you feel inspired to visit where we’ve been. Please do let me know if you’d like more specific recommendations about places to go or stay.

Up first: Quadra Island.

To get there, we took the ferry from San Juan Island (next to our Lopez) to Sidney, BC, then drove 3+ hours up the coast to Campbell River. Except for Mount Findlayson Provincial Park (with ENORMOUS old growth cedars and a salmon-spawning stream, right outside Victoria), this was a pretty dull drive, because we were beelining it on the inland highway. I’d recommend taking the slower coastal route…but we were in a hurry to get to the islands.

Campbell River itself? Not as cosy as its neighbor across the sound, Powell River, but it had its charm, including an excellent natural foods store, and this sculpture:

OK, Campbell River…creepy, but cool.

The ferry to Quadra took 10 minutes, but we still saw a humpback on the crossing. (Didn’t grab my camera fast enough for that.)

We had planned to camp, but neither of the two big Provincial Parks there had car-type campgrounds, and we weren’t set up for backpacking this time. The Heriot Bay Inn’s campground was WAY too sardine-packed for our taste (a tent between 2 RVs just doesn’t conjure up that camp-y feeling). But we were able to get a cute little room in the 100 year-old building…

…that came with its own cat.

Hard to take selfies with an ipad, turns out.

Our first two days of hiking were sunny, but also smoky from the many forest fires further north. Quadra’s beaches reminded us of ours…

Interesting note: no anemones in the tidepools, but lots of oysters!

…as did its giant, moss-covered  hummocks rising out of forest.

Not pictured: me taking a skinny-dip in that lake back there!

When the rain came, it was very welcome, as it chased away all that smoke and (we trust) also helped the firefighters win their fight. The wild, wet coast felt familiar and exotic at the same time.

Ahhhhh…

Smaller than our Salish Sea ones. Typical? Unusual? Don’t know.

But this fir tree was in a class by itself.

They call this the Octopus Tree. Wonder why.

One of our favorite spots, on the southern end of the island, was Rebecca Spit, a day-use only park that is probably bustling in summer. But for us, on a sunny September day (which just happened to be our 31st anniversary), it was peaceful, and picnic-perfect.

Lovely place for a stroll, eh.

And then there was this guy on the road-paving crew near the inn, with his buddy, all vested up for safety:

Our kind of island, Quadra.

Next up: Cortes Island! (If you think Quadra’s quirky…)

Luis Urrea and the Serendipity of Inspiration–With a Side of Humor and Grace

Have you ever experienced one of those wonderful moments of confluence, when suddenly all the trickling aspects of your life seem to be pouring into the same inspiring river?

Consider these trickles, seemingly unrelated:

  1. I’m teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.
  2. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been listening to podcasts of On Being, with Krista Tippett, on a semi-regular basis, to give me inspiration.
  3. I’ve been contemplating opportunities to bridge our national divide on a local level–whatever that means.
  4. Ursula LeGuin, a writer who felt like more of a teacher than an author to me, died this year.
  5. A friend recommended Luis Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Last week I tuned into my favorite podcast, and found, to my surprise, an interview with Mr. Urrea himself. The topic: “What Borders Are Really About, And What We Do With Them.” I also discovered that Ursula LeGuin had been Urrea’s mentor. She called him Luisito.

Luis Urrea at the Texas Book Festival, 2015 (courtesy Wikipedia)

Urrea knows about borders. He is the son of a woman from Philadelphia and a man from Tijuana. On his website, he sums up, in eerily tidy prose, how he lost his father when he, Luis, was 20:

I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already.  But some of it is central to the Ursula story.  In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift.  And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora.  He died awfully in their care.  And then they sold me his corpse.  He cost me $750.

The details of those days are ugly.  Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English.  My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house.  He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding.  Because I was always kidding.  But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.

As I listened to Urrea and Tippett talk–hey, is it cool if I call them Luis & Krista? Yeah? great–the streams of inspiration just kept building. Luis is a teacher, like I was, and here’s what he has to say about bridging divides in his classroom:

As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.

So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.

Yes, please! I want that infection. Don’t we all?

Luis’s book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is itself inspiring, being the fictionalized story of Teresa Urrea, “the Mexican Joan of Arc,” “Saint Teresita”–who happened to have been his real-life, great-great aunt. It’s full of humor, and pathos, and faith, and Spanish. Gaps are bridged all over the place, between races, between theists and non-theists, between men and women. I could not have found a more apt book for this moment in my life, and the life of our nation, if I’d done research.

Speaking of our nation’s moment, Luis also gives the background of his nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway, a look at the path traveled by people crossing the desert to enter the U.S. without papers. That story hit me harder than anything else he said. While researching the Border Patrol–and being essentially hazed by its agents, he had a moment of epiphany:

...the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”

And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.

And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see…

And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.

And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”

I could go on and on with quotes from the interview, not to mention quotes from the novel. (Can’t quote Luis’s other books ’cause I haven’t read ’em yet, but believe me, I’m going to.) But I think I’ve made my point.

Borders. Bridging. Grace. Hope. 

Any questions?

 

 

Are You Blackberry or Salal? Wild Ruminations on Wild Berries

Now is the season of sweet, dark berries gathered by the handful at the sunny edge of the woods.

Also, it’s blackberry season.

But for those of you not from Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), I’m talking about salal berries.

These guys

They’re native, humble, not well known, to my surprise, even to many Washingtonians. They are completely edible–just ask Lewis & Clark. Also delicious–although don’t expect that opinion from Lewis & Clark. They got pretty sick of salal that winter of (I think) 1804. Maybe because they were eating them dried and mixed with smoked salmon and bear grease, a protein-packed pemmican the Coastal nations were kind enough to share with them.

Granted, you wouldn’t want to bake a pie with salals–at least I wouldn’t. Their skin is rough and a bit furry, like a peach, and their “meat” is seedy.

I usually chew a sweet mouthful, then spit out the pulp. Hard to do that with pie.

But they’re sweet! And free! And best of all, to me, unlike those giant, juicy blackberries that stop me on my bike rides–they BELONG here.

I was thinking about salals and blackberries the other day after reading my morning poem by Mary Oliver. (She has defaulted to my poet of choice since I took up the daily poem habit as inoculation against the day’s national news, after the election.) Mary had a childhood full of suffering, which she managed to transcend through her writing–and probably lots of other activity I don’t know about, since she hasn’t written an autobiography. But my point is: she suffered, she survived, she wrote, and her writing is both vehicle (to her) and Promised Land (to the rest of us and also, I devoutly wish, to her).

I’m a writer. I have to this point in my life suffered almost nothing. 50-some years of good fortune. I know my time will come, so I’m neither boasting nor tempting Fate–just wondering: could this be the reason I have yet to write something that brings people screeching to a halt at the side of the road?

Easy to ride past.

Is my writing sweet, nourishing, but not very tempting? When someone takes a bite, do they savor, but still spit out a portion of pulp?

Is suffering the sunshine and rain that causes art to plump and swell? Or does the real difference lie in the species themselves: some of us are born with certain DNA, then planted and raised in such a way to create more beauty or truth than others?

I take comfort in the fact that this is, really, a pretty silly parallel. Also that I love blackberries, and great writers, so much that I’ll never waste time feeling envious. 

But in salal season, I still wonder.