Border

Two mornings ago I woke up thinking about scorpions. A friend had written a poem about them — creatures unfamiliar to her but common here, where I live. And immediately I thought of the handmade scorpions the Mexican artisans create and leave for visitors to buy at Big Bend National Park.

See the scorpions, made of wire and beads? Note the price list to the right. The soda bottle is where you, as a tourist, put your money. When my dad and I went to Big Bend six years ago — this very week — we saw these makeshift shops everywhere. We stayed at Chisos Mountain Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Want to see the creators of this folk art?

These two men are wisely sitting in the shade because even in February, it’s hot in the Chihuahuan desert in the afternoon. Presumably, in the evening they walk across the trickle that passes for the Rio Grande at that spot and gather their money, replace their wares.

This is what the border looks like, near the scorpion sellers. Can you tell which side is Texas and which side is Mexico?

Neither can I.

Big Bend National Park is 801,163 acres, making it the 15th largest national park but one of the least visited, due to its remote location. The border with Mexico within the park stretches 118 miles. On the U.S. side is the national park, and on the Mexican side is Maderas del Carmen, a protected reserve. The cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico has increased the migration of wildlife to and from both sides in an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The park was officially established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 12, 1944. Look at that date for a moment. Do you know what event occurred only six days earlier? D-Day.

What made Big Bend so important that a President would shift his focus from a world in turmoil to the wilderness of southwest Texas? It was a noble purpose. To set something aside for future generations with the fate of the present generation still uncertain was an act of optimism in an uncertain world.”

Thank you, Mr. President.

 

 

“Far from a mere plank”

“Far from a mere plank in her husband’s platform, Katharina von Bora was an integral part of the entire foundation.”

That’s from Michelle DeRusha’s 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, in which Katharina von Bora was woman number 6. DeRusha has now expanded Katharina’s story in Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.

Katharina left behind eight letters, none of which were written to her husband. For a writer trying to bring a historical figure to life, that’s a pittance of primary sources. Somehow DeRusha did it.

She did have some of Luther’s letters to Katharina, sermons and treatises published back in the day, and more books on Martin Luther than she could ever hope to read.

But I know she wished for more of Katharina’s own voice. I sure did. And of course, that made me think of Eliza Hamilton.

“Unfortunately, she was so self-effacing and so reverential toward her husband that, though she salvaged every scrap of his writing, she apparently destroyed her own letters,” writes Ron Chernow in his biography Alexander Hamilton.

Any papers belonging to Katharina that may have remained following her death no longer exist. The remaining family documents were destroyed following World War II.

But oh, Katharina, what might you have written? About your father taking you to the convent school and leaving you there at age 6? About your 18 years in cloistered life? About your escape on Easter eve? About your thoughts regarding this renegade monk both before and after you married him? What about the loss of two daughters? Would you share your recipe for home-brewed beer? Why was Tuesday considered a lucky day for weddings? What did you think of the young men gathered around your table? Of the kings and noblemen to whom you turned for help when society shunned you once again?

The bits of Katharina’s voice that we have intrigue me, including this one: “More damage has been done to me by my friends than by my enemies.” Yes, said every woman ever.

Or when Luther encouraged her to read her Bible cover to cover, she argued, “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” I think her statement shows a profound understanding of theology. She was educated enough in Scripture to be a sounding board and confidant to her husband, Mr. Reformation, but she also knew reading and hearing and knowing isn’t enough. May I add my amen, “Most holy Mrs. Doctor” (one of the tender ways in which Luther addressed her in his letters.)

My favorite nonfiction historical book ever is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. She focuses on the stories of three people to tell the larger story of the Great Migration. In a similar way, DeRusha uses the story of Katharina and Martin Luther to tell the story of the Reformation.

“Luther saved Katharina. He rescued her from the convent, from a life she didn’t choose for herself, and offered her security, stability, and a place in a society that regarded her very existence with suspicion. … What history has largely failed to acknowledge, however, is that Katharina saved Luther as well. … The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina. But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.”

As I finished the book on Thursday, while the plumber (who I’ve come to know on a first-name basis) installed a new water heater, I started writing this review. On Friday I slept and rose and did as many errands as I could to avoid finishing it. Finally I wrote, “So this is personal.”

Katharina’s story is personal to me because it made me wonder what other women in my life have not left a record.

I have only a few things written by my mom, mainly prayer letters to friends and family during her years with cancer. I also have a journal she wrote when she was pregnant with me, that she abandoned when real life required more attention. From her mother, I don’t have anything (although Nannie was more of a numbers gal). From my dad’s mother I have one letter.

Then there’s me. My children will have more writing than they’ll know what to do with. But even so, they’ll never see the poems I’ve deleted. I’ve burned letters. I have given great thought to what my writing journals say, should someone find them after I’m gone and choose not toss them in a landfill. I tweet with care.

Speaking of Twitter, while jotting notes for this review, I came across an essay by Rahawa Haile, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and read books by black writers along the way. She wrote, “That visibility is vulnerability, but that it also paves the way toward action for those who see themselves in you. That your existence, whether you see it or not, helps others be brave.”

Katharina lived in a time when she was already plenty vulnerable. More visibility might not have been wise for a woman who existed between the years of 1499-1552. I’m not bold enough to say I see myself in her, but I see in her the woman I want to be. DeRusha, in telling Katharina’s story, helps me be more brave.

‘Jitney’

Our last show on our last night was August Wilson’s Jitney. If you saw the movie Fences, that’s his too. Wilson wrote 10 plays on the African American experience in the 20th century, one for each decade. Jitney is set in the ’70s, and it’s the last of the plays to make it to Broadway. We saw it while it was still in previews, a week before it officially opened.

Wilson had a genius for character and dialogue. He also had the ability to surprise an audience, both with terrible turns as well as wonderful ones. Although it’s definitely a drama, the play was also funny, with jokes and teasing among these men who are long-time friends.

All good writing is specific and universal. Jitney tells a story that is about African Americans in a particular place and time, running a gypsy car service in 1977 that’s in business because white cabs won’t go to the black parts of Pittsburgh. The son, Booster, who gets out of prison for murder following a false, race-based accusation of rape. Those specifics are different from my life. But the universals? I know those. I’ve seen father-son conflict up close. I know about being young and in love and not having enough money. I’ve had friends who are closer than family, who encouraged and pushed me. I’ve seen my parents’ friends impact me as an adult in ways I never imagined when I was a child. I’ve seen a reputation change in an one unforeseeable instant. And I’ve dreamed big dreams that never saw morning.

This show is one I don’t know if you’ll get to see, so here’s a short video with comments from the cast. I can’t get enough of that groovy ’70s music!

 

 

‘Waitress’

I needed saving

and a good mistake needed making

—“I Didn’t Plan It”

That little couplet sums up this heartwarming show called Waitress. If you saw the 2007 movie of the same title, this is it, but with songs, so, better. (In my opinion, every story is better with songs.) It’s a story about what makes us human, namely, making mistakes.

It’s set in Joe’s Pie Diner, somewhere that sounds awfully Texan to me. The main character, Jenna, has made a series of mistakes including this one: “I do stupid things when I drink, like sleep with my husband.” He’s terrible, and when Jenna becomes pregnant, she dreams of running away from him, if only she could afford to. Her plan is to enter a pie-baking contest, where the prize would be enough money to buy her and her baby a new life. Because there is one thing she is really, really good at, and that’s making pies, a gift she inherited from her mama.

Each pie she creates is a slice of her story, concealed in a pie: Getting out of the Mud Pie, A Little Wild Wild Berry Pie, and my favorite, Betrayed by My Eggs Pie.

How does Jenna respond to mistake No. 1? By rushing headlong into mistake No. 2. Ultimately, her mistakes save her.

As does her kindness. She’s always kind to cranky Old Joe, who owns the diner and eats there every day. No one else will wait on him; Jenna does. It matters in ways she could never have foreseen.

The show, which centers around Jenna and her two female friends at the diner, has a feminine perspective. The music was composed by Sara Bareilles, and the film was written (and co-starred) Adrienne Shelly. This information about Shelly comes from the playbill: “…she conceived the film while pregnant with her daughter Sophie (Lulu in the film), for whom she wrote it as a ‘love letter’ in just two weeks.” Ultimately, the movie and the show are just that, a love letter. Shelly was murdered shortly after completing the film. The fact that this story, this tribute to motherhood, has gone on to the Great White Way, probably someday to a theater near you, well, it really is like something was birthed.

 

‘Hamilton’

(Notice how Hamilton‘s playbill is the only cover in color. Printing in color is more expensive, but Hamilton can afford it. A. Ham. would be proud.)

The entire reason we went to New York was to see Hamilton. I first listened to the entire cast album October 2015, shortly after it released and have listened to it ever since. I converted John the following January, and he surprised me with tickets for Valentine’s Day last year.

“We don’t do this,” I told him when I opened the gift. Meaning we don’t take big trips, don’t make extravagant purchases. We’re sensible. We give practical gifts, take family-oriented vacations. We don’t go to New York City for an entire week and make all our dreams come true.

Until we did.

During the year between buying the tickets and seeing the show, we listened to it often, especially on drives. One summer evening we took a drive down all our bike routes and sang along, for the entire two hours and 45 minutes. John would text me a lyric, and I’d text him back the next one.

Sure, I would have preferred to see the original cast—particularly Chris Jackson—but I think what would have been more incredible would have been to be someone like Jimmy Fallon, who first saw it at The Public Theater, before it went to Broadway. To ask fellow patrons, Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? 

John sat next to a couple who I’d guess were around 60. Like us, they bought their tickets a year ago. The wife trained at Julliard and teaches voice. She admitted she was skeptical of the hip hop, going in, but by the end of act 1, she was lovin’ it.

I did not expect the staging to bring so much to the story, especially through the choreography. The chorus was on stage for the entire show, and they served almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action through song and movement. Every gesture communicated. The men and women wore parchment-colored tights and sleeveless shirts with dark boots. That made it easy to put on a red coat or a blue one, to add a hat or a shawl for when a chorus member briefly became a character.

And while the choreography was complex, the stage itself was relatively simple. Nothing wheels on or off. It’s the same set throughout with a couple of concentric turntables surrounded by a balcony. No special effects. Nothing dropped from the ceiling. No pyrotechnics, unless you count Eliza setting fire to a letter. And they do more with pieces of paper than anyone since, well, the Founding Fathers.

Hamilton makes you believe in America. You see the flawed founders, and you love them. You get how radical this American experiment was then and still is. You consider the women, erased from the narrative because their words were not preserved. You understand how divisive slavery was from the beginning. You feel that this country should not have worked, but then again, how could it not? Who doesn’t want to turn the world upside down?

It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a show. It’s exciting and sad and heartbreaking and funny and rollicking and inspirational. There was so much the cast album alone didn’t give me, moments that needed to be seen as well as heard. At the end I was exhausted. I wanted to sit and sob, but we attended a matinee, and there was another show that night, so we made our way to a deli we liked, and just talked through it all. This whole thing went from something we don’t do to something we did … together. Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris; John and Megan will always have New York.

We’ve listened to and watched and read who knows how many interviews with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. We saw Moana twice and downloaded the music, and we can’t wait for Mary Poppins Returns, which he’s filming in London now. But I think my favorite moment ever with him was the Broadway edition of Carpool Karaoke before the Tonys. This, for us, is what musical theater is all about—folks in a car, belting out show tunes. Because we can always do that.

(Here’s the best 11 minutes you will spend outside of listening to Hamilton, I guarantee.)

 

 

 

‘The Front Page’

Our first night in town we had dinner at an Indian restaurant and then cuddled in bed and watched the Golden Globes. The second night we went to a Knicks game because we were in walking distance of Madison Square Garden. (Don’t tell, but I secretly rooted for the New Orleans Pelicans because they’re in the same division as the San Antonio Spurs. The Pelicans won.) Our third night and every day thereafter we saw shows. The first was The Front Page.

It was written in 1928 by a couple of Chicago newspaper guys who became playwrights, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (husband of Helen Hayes). The setting is the press room in the criminal courts building in Chicago, October, 1928. While a lot of particulars of life have changed from then until now, the basics remain unchanged: People are people. But the clothes from back then are vastly superior, for men and women. Fab-U-Lous! Most important, friends, all I did was laugh, through all three acts.

How could I not? John Goodman was the sheriff. John Slattery was the newspaperman trying to get out. And the unscrupulous editor? Nathan Lane.

“Appearing at around the same time as the shark appears in “Jaws,” Lane’s Walter Burns roared through the door of this thinly veiled version of Chicago’s former City News Bureau…” 

That great line is from Chicago Tribune reviewer Chris Jones. Nathan Lane was the shark. He sucked up every bit of oxygen on stage, and we begged him to take more. I’ve admired him on the large and small screen, most recently as attorney F. Lee Bailey in The People v. O.J. Simpson. But in person? He was unreal. There was a bit where he was trying to push a rolltop desk that wouldn’t budge, and he slowly slid all the way down until he was on the floor. Never underestimate the value of physical comedy.

This trip of ours? It was fun. We laughed. We walked our tooshies off. We ate at multiple corner delis, some of them multiple times. And we did what we love most—we saw shows.

When I met John, he wasn’t a theater guy. When we did a study abroad trip in London, he saw shows then, and I think, although he didn’t know it, he was bitten by the bug. A few years later one of our children got into theater, which led to us becoming season ticket holders at our fabulous local community theater, Fredericksburg Theater Company. We’ve since each been in a show.

There is nothing like live theater. It’s scripted, yet unpredictable. The Front Page we saw Tuesday, January 10, was different the following night in some small (or maybe large) way. I’d see it again anywhere. But I’ll never see it again with Nathan Lane.

Here Is New York

Once we had the dates set for our trip to New York City, I put them in my calendar. I did not write “vacation” or even “NYC.” I wrote, “Look around! Look around!” Because Hamilton.

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now

History is happenin’ in Manhattan and we just happen

to be in the greatest city in the world

in the greatest city in the world

—“The Schuyler Sisters”

That’s what we did all week, look around. notice people. Notice buildings. Notice parks. Most of my vacations have been more nature-oriented, more Mary Oliver: woods, mountains, rivers, beaches. This trip was E.B. White, who wrote “Here Is New York.”

He wrote this 7,500-word piece in 1949, and I found it still for sale all over New York in 2017. The man loved Maine with all his heart, and he also loved Manhattan. Meet E. B. White, greatest essayist of all time:

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is incomprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

New York is a poem. I second that. And poems are made of specifics, things you notice when you look around.

Here are just a few things I noticed during our little week on that crowded island:

  • More languages than I’ve ever heard in one spot.
  • I thought smoking was over, but a lot of people still exhale.
  • Every clerk, barista, bartender, waiter, doorman, driver, housekeeper, tour guide, security person, and usher was polite, if not friendly.
  • Merciful heavens, Central Park! Black rocks, bronze statues, trees glorious trees, winding paths, so many dogs and strollers, toddlers dressed for blizzards and playing in snowmelt, grownups on swings (including me).
  • Delis on every corner with good food, some with a specialty, like dumplings or felafel. Extra seating upstairs or down.
  • It doesn’t take long to adjust to walking at least 10 miles a day.

One moment I loved, that E.B. White would have too because he loved dogs, was when we ran into actor Tony Shalhoub in Central Park. He was throwing a ball for his dog, which landed at my husband’s feet. The dog came over to fetch the ball, his owner behind him. John didn’t want to make a big scene—here was a guy out walking his dog on a cool, sunny day, just like we walk our dogs. Here is New York. And here is Fredericksburg, and here is wherever you walk your dog.

(P.S. More about the trip in the next four posts!)

Goodbye: live oak tree

Can you stand one more tree post? It’s the last in the series.

When you drive up to this house, the live oak is what you notice. It basically is the front yard. It shades all but a small fraction of the lawn, and to reach over there it would have to reach across the driveway. But it could. This tree can do anything.

Its north side was pounded in the hailstorm of 2013. It came back. Drought before that. No problem. Too much rain this year. Never faltered. It’s basically invincible.

Each spring when the live oak’s new growth pushes out the old, leaving yellow oak pollen everywhere, the tree looks a little sad. But it hangs in there, and by the time summer arrives, it has dusted itself off and is back in business.

A couple of months ago some guys were in the neighborhood, trimming trees, and they offered to trim this one. I said no. One, they weren’t local, and I only hire local folks. But two, what if their equipment had touched a tree with oak wilt? No way will I knowingly expose my live oak to disease. There’s so little I can control—I can at least offer this gesture of protection. To a tree that has taken more than I thought a tree could.

 

 

 

Goodbye: interior

When my mom died, she left me a little money. After thinking about how to use it for a few months, I decided she’d be happiest if I put it into the house. Formica, begone!

Now I think of all the interiors as coming from her, although a strict accounting does not bear that out. Suffice it to say that her gift spurred us to spend a little more, to fix this, to paint that. The improvement project I already miss is the flooring. Probably because it’s already gone.

New owners, there is brand-new laminate wood flooring, professionally laid. It’s beautiful and consistent through the whole house, except the bathrooms, which are tile. But when I close my eyes I see the floor my husband laid, shortly after we moved in. Honestly, if that floor were still here, it would be hard to leave. Not because it was better but because it was a family project. We have pictures of all of us together, doing our part. When I dream about this house I dream that floor.

The realtor likes this new floor. It looks great in the photos. And as soon as it went in, I was ready to say goodbye to this house. So goodbye floor. Goodbye fireplace. Goodbye three bedrooms. Goodbye kitchen and dining. Goodbye front living room and back living room. Goodbye bathrooms. Goodbye closets and cabinets and shelves.

Goodbye: doors

Several years ago I wrote a poem—which I’ve since lost—about the doors in my house, all their openings and closings, their slammings, their lockings. Sometimes their replacements. And the way they look now, all open.

Other than the front door, my favorite door is the back door that opens from the back living room to the back porch. It has built-in blinds that can be opened or closed, pulled up or down. It’s one more way we let in the light. Every morning I open them up, and every evening I close them. I love the combination of a door with blinds.

Except for these other doors in the house, originals from the ’70s, which don’t have blinds, exactly, but slats. The doors open to closets, mostly. I don’t understand the point of the slats. Are the closets suffocating? Does the monster inside them enjoy a smidgen of light?

As I do with all my mysteries, I consulted Google. They’re called louver doors. Supposedly, they add charm.

Are you feeling charmed?

Charmed can mean, according to more handy-dandy Googling, polite pleasure, as in, “Pleased to meet you, charmed, I’m sure.” Or it can mean protected by magic, as in, “Hi, my house is haunted but in a good way.” Have these charming slats protected us? Possibly. By forces beyond our control? Surely.

So, thank you, slats, for whatever you’ve kept out or kept in. for lending a little of your charm.