Tower of the Americas, San Antonio
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The Summer of ’68

San Antonio is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.  April 6 will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of HemisFair ’68, a world’s fair organized to celebrate San Antonio’s 250th anniversary, but also, not incidentally, to accomplish urban renewal downtown, to revitalize the Riverwalk and increase tourism, to dispel stereotypes of this City as a “backwater” town, and to effectively put San Antonio “on the map.”  It worked. It was a big deal. It was a bona fide World’s Fair certified by the International Bureau of Exhibitions in Paris, and it was the first World’s Fair held not only in Texas, but in the Southern United States. As I said, it was a BIG deal.

I was a college student in San Antonio at the time, in residence all through that summer for the duration of the Fair (April 6- October 6).  HemisFair ’68 was certainly a big deal to me, precisely because it was a bona fide World’s Fair! As a small-town Texas girl who came from a place where the biggest deal was the annual livestock show, I could hardly wait for the expansion of my world that HemisFair promised. I was not disappointed, and I went downtown to visit that world often.

Some 32 nations plus the United States, Texas and Arkansas exhibited. Since the theme was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” representation was heavy, of course, by Mexico and the Central and South American countries, but nations from Europe, Asia, and North America were also present. All the countries who could trace their contributions to America were here sharing their histories, cultures and connections. The wonders of it all, the assemblage of the arts and artifacts,  the international foods and entertainments, the exuberance of their presentations created such an excitement, such a world view — well, for this girl, it was the stuff of which dreams are made — and bucket lists. My own favorite country, to which I returned time and again, was Espańa, with its priceless exhibit of exquisite paintings by Goya, Velasquez, and El Greco on loan from the Prado (which I have since visited in Madrid).

And then there were the corporate pavilions. Major Fortune 500  companies such as IBM, GE, Kodak, General Motors, Ford,  and Coca-Cola were here, almost 20 of them, showcasing their products and proudly touting their innovations for the future. I personally loved IBM, where two separate pavilions contained computers that talked to each other. You could create a design, program it into a computerized loom, and come away with a sample of your fabric to take home. (Could this have been where my love of design and fabric arts began?)  IBM also introduced the Selectric® typewriter at this exhibit, which certainly spoke to my aspirations as a writer and subsequently made my life easier for years.

But it was the Tower of the Americas, that 750 foot tower with the revolving restaurant and observation deck on top, which emerged as the enduring symbol of HemisFair and the familiar landmark of the San Antonio skyline. I got engaged in the summer of ’68, and my fiancé (now husband) and I celebrated with dinner in the romantic restaurant atop that Tower. The aerial view was stunning, of course, but the revolving inner platform was  more “stumbling” than stunning, presenting a real challenge for waiters trying to serve diners rotating at a steady clip of 360º every hour. We laughed as our plates and glasses “walked” on the table with vibration, halfway expecting them to spin out by centrifugal force! And then there was the issue of trying to locate your table, which had moved while you visited the ladies’ room — and trying to appear nonchalant about being disoriented.

As I think back on all this now, I realize that the Tower was an apt symbol not only for a world’s fair, but an apt metaphor for America then.  We were reaching for the stars, quite literally through the space program, and yet society was spinning, sometimes out of control. The 1960s were tumultuous, and 1968 was no exception. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated two days before HemisFair opened, and Robert Kennedy six weeks later.  There were anti-Vietnam protest and civil rights marches and love-ins and sit-ins and every other kind of  “in.” Then, as now, the nation was divided; then, as now, (we) young people were idealistic, sometimes naive, but feeling the emerging power of our numbers and liking the sound of our own voices. There was even a special youth pavilion at HemisFair called Project Y that invited young people from all nations to raise those voices in music, performance, discussion and debate — a place for the spontaneous “confluence” of cultures to happen.

The general climate of social unrest has been cited by some as the reason HemisFair ’68 lost money (about $7 million by most estimates) and that attendance was not quite up to expectations (roughly a million visitors shy of projections). Yet, the success of the Fair cannot be measured solely in terms of money, or even in a revitalized downtown and a lasting tourism and convention business. Rather, it was the larger world view that drove HemisFair and fostered a collective attitude of inclusion and diversity that is the greater legacy for San Antonio today. With the whole world coming to visit, there was simply no room for discrimination or parochialism (and there still isn’t). Most people don’t realize, for example, that it was HemisFair ’68 that put a de facto end to racial segregation in our city; it was also HemisFair that prompted the legalization of liquor by the drink. so much for the “backwater” politics and policies of the past.

Today, San Antonio is indeed a “world class city” with a distinct character, a diverse culture, and a blended history born of  all the people who have lived here. You can pretty much draw a straight line between HemisFair ’68 and San Antonio’s emergence onto the world scene. We may be only the second largest city in Texas, but we have the biggest heart. There’s even room for me in it!

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Write On!

(Photo: “La Chascona,” the home of Pablo Neruda in Santiago, Chile)

I have been a working writer for over 30 years. I started as a 10 year old, keeping a journal and producing a little home newsletter. I have been writing religiously ever since. It is not only what I do, but who I am. As a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, The Authors Guild, and the National Federation of  Press Women, and with three books and hundreds of articles to my credit, I no longer need to prove that I can write. But I may, on occasion, need to prove, at least to myself, that I can still publish.

An important aspect of publishing is being active in the writing/publishing community vis-à-vis professional organizations, networking conferences, and academic workshops. Things change rapidly in this industry: magazines and newspapers come and go, as do their editors, along with freelance opportunities; the reading public’s preferences shift from print to on-line to social media; consumer trends create special interest groups and demands for new content information. Good writing and reliable reporting are constants, of course, but the marketing of that writing, and the way those “intellectual products” find their audience and get delivered, has changed dramatically.

For the first half of my career, everything centered in New York City. All the big publishing houses, the major national magazines, the best-known literary agents, the national writers’ organizations and, of course, The New York Times were all there. Lucky for me that I was too. Even as a relatively small player in the big city scene, I could easily pop in for editorial meetings, have lunch with my agent, or schmooze with fellow colleagues at big conferences. Yes, there were a few editors and agents in Chicago or on the West Coast, but only a few; mostly it was the literary and little publications that were out in the “hinterlands.”  If you wanted to play with the big boys in commercial publishing, you had to make those connections in New York, and you had to be around to sustain those relationships, or at least be willing to make regular trips East to do so.

Of course, those very early years were pre-computer — pre-everything except the telephone. I realize I’m dating myself here, but I actually wrote my first book on a Smith Corona typewriter, and then typed and retyped the edited rewrites. I considered myself on the cutting edge of technology because my typewriter had a an auto-correct feature! Queries for articles were typed up one-by-one and sent to individual editors in snail mail. The biggest controversy, given how much time the whole submission process took, was whether or not multiple submissions (pitching the same idea to several different publications) were ethical.

A few years ago I relocated down to Southwest Texas and out of the New York area. Since then,  I have not been pursuing national publication; rather, I have started this website and only done a couple print pieces in the local paper. While I am, so to speak, semi-retired, and not really angling for career advancement anymore, I still write. But when some younger members of the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) in the area started a Texas chapter last year, I was on board. Writing and publishing has, after all, expanded beyond New York, and we are, after all, one group, regardless of age and stage in our careers. Furthermore, there is some obligation for older members to lend their voice, experience, and support  to the development of a new generation of writers.

So, I signed up for the first Texas regional conference. And I singed up for the “Client Connections,” which is basically a speed dating round with editors to pitch story ideas and get assignments. My contacts were with editors of local publications, San Antonio Magazine and Texas Highways, because, well … this is where I am now and this is what I know. Even so, I didn’t have high expectations, mainly  because I didn’t have much confidence in my own abilities to still be competitive. Age and absence from the day-to-day hustle will do that to you.

Ironically, my “speed dating” sessions went well, so well in fact that I walked away with positive responses to several of my ideas. Now I have article assignments and longer-term proposals in the works. Suddenly I have more deadlines than I can handle. Now I have stress!This is what happens when your expectations underestimate your abilities.

It’s okay; it’s affirming. It’s even humorous. The one constant in my life, regardless of my other endeavors, has been my writing. It is my personal and professional identity, my mainstay, my salvation. I have been a teacher/college professor, a corporate employee, a fabric artist, a community activist and volunteer, a mother, a daughter, and a wife, but writing is what  I do, who I am.  As long as I am still doing it, publishing or not, I am me.

But I am glad to be publishing again.

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Fat Tuesday

So here we are again, already at Fat Tuesday with another Lenten season of sacrifice upon us. Seems it rolls around faster and faster each year, faster than Christmas even, though mercifully, with less stress. Lent is a good time to stay home, be quiet and repent; nobody expects parties or gifts or cards, and the general mood everywhere, even among those who aren’t Catholic, is subdued. (Of course, the grey, cold days of February may account as much for the restrained demeanor as religious devotion.)

But all that seriousness starts tomorrow. For today, at least, “Laissez le bon temps rouler!  Let the good times roll!  New Orleans is at full throttle, as are all those other places that celebrate Mardi Gras (which is French for fat Tuesday). I love New Orleans. My husband and I met there fifty years ago, and we have returned often over the years; in fact, we plan to go back for a few days later next month. Every so often, I need to revisit those romantic highlights: a drink in the Carousel Bar in the Monteleon; dinner at Arnaud’s with a peak at the Mardi Gras gowns in their back-room museum; early morning café au lait and bignets  at Cafe du Monde; Sunday brunch at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District. I need to stroll the misty streets of the Vieux Carré, feel the spirits of voodoo in St. Louis Cemetery, and move to the rhythms of jazz at Preservation Hall. I need the timelessness and transport that only New Orleans among American cities can offer, the food, the music, the atmosphere. I need a break from the ordinary, perhaps these days more than ever; I need romance and glamour and relief!

Obviously, New Orleans is one of those places I’m passionate about, though I have to admit that I have never been there during Mardi Gras. I hear that the population of the city almost doubles during the few days before Ash Wednesday. Good for them and for tourism, but no thank you. The crush of crowds on Burbon Street on any routine Saturday night is enough for me. But I sure have given some fabulous Mardi Gras parties of my own at home, decorated in brassy gold, green and purple with sequined masks, ropes of beads, and French Creole menus including shrimp remoulade, Brennan’s veal grillades, King Cake and chicory coffee.

The first Mardi Gras type celebration is recorded to have been in Louisiana in 1699 a few miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, about where New Orleans is today. These celebrations, arising out of a French Catholic tradition, were meant to mark the final days of food and drink before the fasting and austerity of Lent began.  The first Mardi Gras parade as we know it took place in 1837 in New Orleans, though the 18th and 19th centuries saw Mardi Gras festivities spread to other southern regions that shared a French colonial heritage, most notably to Galveston, Mobile, Lake Charles, and Pensacola. Mardi Gras parties, parades and balls are still time-honored traditions in many of these cities today.

This year is sort of odd, because Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day, which is typically celebrated with champagne and chocolates, two things likely to be “given up” for Lent. Here in San Antonio, in a city that is heavily influenced by traditional Catholicism, the main focus is on the spiritual: statues in church are already covered, schedules for Lenten Masses and confessions have been posted, and re-enactments of passion plays for Good Friday are being planned. Here, the time and energy spent in “letting the good times roll” before the season of sacrifice begins is already being directed toward the bigger celebration of Easter. For the most part, Valentine’s Day is getting lost in the shuffle this year, although I have noticed that some places are advertising special Valentine’s dinners and activities for tonight.

As a matter of fact, we are attending just such “a heartfelt event” this evening at the assisted living home where my Mother lives. Given the ages of most of the residents (and of us!), this is not likely to be a very romantic, much less glittering or glamorous affair, but it marks an occasion, a holiday, another landmark in the year that a family has together. As we get older and our lives get smaller, the days blend one into the other and every day becomes just another day hardly distinguishable from the last. Unless we distinguish it.

So, whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day with hearts and flowers, or Mardi Gras with parades and doubloons, or yes, even Lent with ashes on your forehead, mark the day as special simply because you are still here to enjoy it. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

Here we are at the very end of January and I’m only now getting to the first journal entry of the new year. It’s been a full month since my last post, and I feel guilty. I hate missing a deadline, even if it is self-imposed. I could say that I don’t know where the time has gone, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I know it’s been spent cleaning out, getting organized, doing paperwork, regrouping, and yes, at least preparing to “have fun.”

In a recent essay in The New York Times, writer Alan Burdick  (It’s Been a Year of This?  1/21//18)  talks about the fungibility of time, how it drags when you are bored or fearful or sad — such as in this era of the Trump administration — or how it flies when you are happy or engaged or productive —such as in this era of the Trump administration. Curiously, even involvement in fervid political activism can qualify as “fun” if you are really into it (depending, of course, on how you define fun).

Anyway, my personal description of the last few months has been that the days seemed long, but the weeks and months flew by. That description is not completely incompatible with the standard psychological trope: time slows down when you are agonizingly conscious of it, such as at a boring lecture or involved in a tedious conversation, but it “flies” when you are fully absorbed and occupied, even if you are not exactly “having fun.” Days full of stress and anxiety may feel excruciatingly long, but when those days add up in chores accomplished, objectives reached, and goals achieved (such as handling my Mother’s affairs, getting her relocated, and recovering from a hurricane), then you somehow feel that time has, indeed, flown by. “Fun” is beside the point.

But not always. This month I had dear friends here to visit for a week. It is a given that stressors can be both positive and negative, and that even happy occasions can create stress, especially when it comes to entertaining guests: the planning, the cleaning, the cooking, the work of preparation. An additional stressor for our week was the absolutely terrible weather that San Antonio experienced during their visit: snow, sleet, ice, rain, mist, and freezing temperatures. On the day one of my friends arrived at the airport, the entire city was shut down. (Good thing I am confident, even if stressed, about driving in snow and ice.) But, we had plenty of food and wine in the house, and our own good company, so even though some of our plans had to be adjusted, we did have fun.  We talked and laughed and enjoyed each other, rejuvenated our relationships and set a date for our next get-together.

During that week, time flew because I was not aware of it. I was happy and busy, “in the flow” of friendship, much as I am “in the flow” when working on my art quilts or my writing. The conscious suspension of time happens not only in creative pursuits, however, but also in moments of ordinary everyday pleasures. Something as simple as reading a book, hugging the dog, or walking in the sunshine can offer moments of pure contentment, even joy. We just have to be quiet long enough to let ourselves enjoy those moments, to be present in them and be grateful for them. The experience of time flying is generally an indicator of good mental health and emotional stability, though we may not always recognize it as such until it’s behind us.

Ultimately, time slows down because you are painfully aware of the waste of it; likewise, it speeds fast forward when you are NOT counting the minutes and hours. It may seem counterintuitive but, even when engaged in unpleasant activities, time will accelerate because you are totally occupied.  While that may not be remembered in retrospect as one of  life’s happier periods, it is still better and more productive to tackle difficulties head on than to sit and sulk and count each dreadful day.

Now that we are over the hump of January and all the feigned optimism and good wishes that a new year inevitably brings, I am looking ahead to 2018 with a more realistic attitude, even a somewhat selfish one. Yes, I still have to face some of those mundane chores of  another year, banking and taxes and medical appointments, all of which will fritter away time holding on the phone or sitting in doctors’ offices, but I am determined not to deliberately waste my own time — or to let others waste it —on anything that is not absolutely necessary.  I have stories to write, art to create, and trips to take. After all, whether it drags or it flies, time is a finite commodity; there are only 24 hours in a day and only so many days in a life. We need to spend what we have wisely, and well, in the interest of our own happiness.

So, are we having fun yet?

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The days between Christmas and New Year’s provide an intermission, I think, a necessary break in the drama of life between the big productions of the current year and the coming attractions of the year ahead. During this interlude, I slow the pace, even often having time for quiet conversation over a glass of champagne, just as theatre-goers do in the lobby between acts at a Broadway play.

Actually, I do more than have conversations and champagne, though my activities are generally quiet and contemplative, and mostly solitary. For instance, this is the time when I review last year’s New Year’s resolutions, evaluate how I did, and formulate new ones for next year. I review finances, close out year-end bookkeeping and revise the budget. I mark new dates on a new wall calendar (yes, in addition to the calendar on my smart-phone), noting what appointments and services I need to arrange. Oh and yes, I write real, hand-written thank-you notes for Christmas gifts.

And then I start cleaning out. For some reason, these days after Christmas find me especially intolerant of clutter; I guess it’s a prelude to wanting the tree down and all the decorations stored so I can have a clean start for the New Year. Anyway, as I try to put gifts away, I am irritated by already full-to-overflowing shelves and drawers; as I file away notes and cards, I am annoyed by the paper, pens and notebooks that spill from my library cabinets; as I put away holiday dishes and special china, I am bedeviled by the challenge of fitting things back into the cupboards from which they came. Finally, as I begin to corral holiday decorations, I am disgusted by the full bins of making-merry decor in my garage that haven’t seen the light of Christmas Past for years. This stuff really needs to go, a lot of it anyway.

Having just been through the chore of emptying out my Mother’s house and moving her up here, I am perhaps more aware than ever of the accumulation of “stuff” that comes to define our lives and the enormous culling process required to determine what is really special, much less necessary. For the most part, our stuff means little to anyone but us; it is an encumbrance while we live, and an overwhelming burden to those who live after us. The paper, the photos, the furniture, the knickknacks, the keepsakes, the collections, the artwork, the diaries, the books, the tools, the crafts, the clothing, even the fine wines — all need to be reevaluated regularly. If something has value or meaning to someone else, give it to them now; if not, turn it into cash or dispose of it yourself and save others the burden of the decision.

All this cleansing creates a rhythm of sorts, moves me into my own intermezzo, which is an operatic term for a short musical movement between acts.  The musical interlude may be calm, even light,  but it does not offer the full time-out of an intermission; rather, it becomes a bridge from one completed section to the beginning of another for which the crescendo can only be anticipated.

I try not to anticipate too much, but instead to slowly build the energy and momentum needed to sustain a productive, but not frenzied, New Year. Maybe the softer melodies of an intermezzo will stay in my mind’s ear for a while as soothing “background music” to my life.  Maybe if I turn off the news and tune out the noise and distractions, I’ll be able to hear it. Maybe this season of transition from drama to intermission to intermezzo will bring me a new resolve and peace of mind with which to face whatever comes in 2018.


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Christmas Comes But Once …

Christmas has come to my Mother’s residence. It doesn’t take much to evoke the beauty of the holidays here because this place is stunning all by itself. It could easily be mistaken for a Grand Hyatt or a Ritz-Carlton. Decorated as it is for the season with a designer’s eye in gold, silver, bronze and turquoise, every detail enhances the architectural style and sophisticated ambiance of this newly-opened facility. The place is gorgeous.

The opulence is a bit at odds with, if not the season, then certainly the situations of the residents, most of whom would probably much prefer to be spending Christmas in their own homes, however humble. But, as is so often the case, health and circumstances dictate and so residents find themselves on  “permanent holiday” here, with no worries, no chores — and few choices.

Traditional Christmas music is piped in throughout, subtly, but perceptibly; back in my Mother’s separate memory care wing, the big TV in the great room shows an endless stream of vintage Christmas movies: White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn. Volunteers from churches and community — choral groups, pet therapies, musicians and children — come to share the yuletide spirit with the elderly and the infirmed. The activities director organizes holiday arts and crafts projects — stringing bells, making cards, fashioning paper decorations — to keep everyone busy and tuned in to the season. These activities seem juvenile to me, and calls to mind that sad canard about the elderly: “Once an adult, twice a child.”

I myself am invited do a dramatic reading of Christmas poems this week, hoping to evoke memories of old school days and Christmases past. I bring little gifts, notebooks and pens, in case anyone cares to write their own poems, or perhaps a Christmas list. (Every speaker knows that, regardless of the audience, you always bring some “take-away” to leave behind.) Choosing the poems for recitation has not been easy for me, a writer and English professor; poems by T.S. Eliot or Longfellow won’t quite do. Too academic. I researched my selections carefully, settling on mostly light verse and well-known lyrics, and have practiced my readings all week. I hope to offer a little more “adult” entertainment for those who might appreciate it.

Everyone is already gathered in the great room when I arrive and they are all wearing Santa hats, except for those who are asleep. My Mother smiles and makes a face as I point to her hat. She is weak and infirmed, and has difficulty speaking, hearing, seeing, and even eating, but she is not mentally impaired.  As always, she is proud of me and appreciates the fact that I will come here so often and try to support her in this community among her new-found friends, most of whom do not seem to have regular visitors or regular support themselves. It is an odd world, this — a world in suspension between reality and memory, or lack thereof. It is not easy to move into and out of this world. I do it every other day or so, but it takes an emotional toll.

As the week ensues, we plan for Christmas itself.  Unfortunately, I am unable to bring my Mother to my home (can’t navigate the transport, the wheelchair, the movement within my house). It makes me sad, though actually, she would probably be disappointed by the reduced decorations in my house and the absence of some of her favorites. I have cut back considerably this year, not even baking all the cookies and goodies I usually make, and certainly not buying all the gifts. There are no parties, no visitors, no reasons for a big production with just my husband, our son and me to celebrate; the requisite mood this year is quiet, the requisite need is rest. With the ready-made excuse of these last difficult months, I’ve given myself permission NOT to be Martha Stewart and, surprisingly, I have found myself to be calmer, more collected and, yes, perhaps even a bit more attuned to the true spirit of Christmas than I have been in a long while. This is a gift of welcome relief that I needed to give to myself, and it may become the gift that I “keep on giving” myself in years to come.

The only one with presents to open this year is my Mother, and we will take them out to her on Christmas Eve before we head downtown to Mass at the Cathedral and dinner on the Riverwalk, which has become our usual San Antonio tradition. I will roast a Thanksgiving turkey for  Christmas, since I wasn’t here to make it in November, and we will make the showy English trifle my Mother established as a must-have tradition years ago and take it out for her to share with everyone at lunch on Christmas Day.

I explain the plans for the week in advance, so that Mother knows what to expect and will not be disappointed. “I know,” she says. “I understand.”

And then, while looking at her little tree with all the dolls on it, she adds, “Whatever. I still love Christmas.”

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Mapuche Machi

My Mother collects dolls, mostly small, unusual dolls, with which she gradually began to decorate her Christmas tree each year. Over time, as I have travelled to far-away places, I have added to her collection with dolls representing those cultures. So now, her tree has become pretty much an international display of figures from all over Europe and Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

My husband and I just returned from a long-planned trip to South America, to Chile and Argentina with a brief foray into Brazil to Igauzu Falls. The original idea when we booked the trip, besides the fact that we hadn’t been to South America before, was that I would get to do the tango in Buenos Aires for my big birthday this year. By happy coincidence, Canadian friends of ours whom we had met years ago on a trip to Egypt, were looking at the exact same tour, so we decided to join them. That, of course, was six months ago, well before all hell broke loose in South Texas, and in my life. We were still debating about actually making this trip up until a week or so before departure, but by then my Mother was settled in at her new residence and our son was available to handle things. “Go,” my Mother said.  So we did.

Usually I start preparing for a big trip to a place I haven’t been before months in advance. The anticipation and planning, after all, are part of the joy of travel. For this trip, I had ordered some guidebooks and histories of the regions we would be visiting, along with a couple volumes of Latin American literature, and even downloaded some review exercises to “brush up” on my Spanish. Since I knew there would be treks through Patagonian forests and national parks in the Lake region, I also intended to double down on my morning walks and exercise regimen and to shop for travel clothes with “layering” in mind to handle the varying temperatures in South America in the spring. Most of all, I hoped to be rested, as well as ready.

But of course I wasn’t, rested or ready.  Just as my books began to arrive and I started working on my Spanish lessons, Mother got sick, Hurricane Harvey hit, her house had to be repaired, cleared out and sold, and I basically ended up spending four months living in Victoria, running home only on weekends.  As the departure date grew nearer, my hopes of making the trip at all diminished accordingly, along with my energy.  My back, neck, knees, legs, feet — everything —hurt; thoughts of the tango made me tired.

I’ll admit it: the trip was a challenge. The travel was arduous, with long flights down to Santiago and back from Buenos Aires, and trains and planes and busses from one region to another in between. The schedule was rigorous, with lots of early starts, long days, packing and unpacking, and yes, those four and five mile nature treks. But the landscapes were spectacular, the people warm and gracious, and the small group of ten of us with a Chilean guide proved amiable traveling companions. I learned so much, which I suppose is one advantage of being so poorly-prepared to begin with.

We began in Chile and our first stop was to visit La Chascona, the Santiago home of Pablo Neruda, well-known poet and diplomat and Chile’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature (1971). It made sense to start there since this was the only famous person/site I knew anything about in Chile, other than Allende, with whom Neruda was closely aligned. The house, like the man and his work, is colorful and varied in style, showcasing Neruda’s many hobbies, his flair for entertaining, his love of literature, and his passion for Matilde Urrita, his secret lover and third wife with whom he built the house.

Santiago is a huge city of 7 million people with broad plazas and traffic to match. Yet, no one honks their horns, no one shouts or curses, no one takes out a gun and shoots you in road rage. (What a pleasant change from life in the States these days!)  The Chileans, I later learned, are called the “Gentlemen [women] of South America,” and I see why. Everything is so civilized; inside in the shops and cafes, people are calm and generous, relaxed and unhurried. We take a long walk to visit the Fine Arts Museum, then find ourselves in need of a taxi back to the hotel. We stop into a lovely restaurant, in which we have not dined, to ask them to call a cab, which they gladly do, and offer us a place to sit and a free drink while we wait!

We continue on in Santiago, visiting the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, the Plaza de Armas, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, before going on to the wine country and to learn about Chilean cuisine and the organic, biodynamic wines produced here. Then it’s the Lakes District and beautiful Puerto Montt. We discover history along with geography: the history of the Mapuche, the ancient indigenous people who date back to 500-600 BCE, who still maintain their culture and traditions and who claim roughly 9 percent of today’s Chilean population.  Mapuche means “people of the earth,” and that is an apt description of Chileans in general. Their dignity, their respect for nature and the environment, and for each other reflects their ancient heritage.

In short, who knew? Certainly not ill-prepared I, who promptly fell in love with Chile in five days, who found it restorative and healing and restful. I brought back a doll for my Mother’s tree, a machi (see above), a good witch doctor who is a woman of central importance as a healer in the Mapuche culture. She knows herbal medicine, can interpret the winds of weather, is a spiritual advisor and a social mediator. I hope the spirit of the machi stays with me, and I hope she will help my Mother feel better and enjoy her Christmas tree.