8: Jugaad

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From the Oxford English dictionary: jugaad, n.                                                    [‘A makeshift automobile constructed from inexpensive materials.’]

Because of my mother’s need to lighten her burden after my dad left, Melanie and I rented a house alone.  I was just out of high school and Mel was fifteen.  I drove a Honda scooter that could barely carry two up a slight incline.  Still too young for a driver’s license, Mel bought a ’51 Dodge for two hundred fifty dollars. 

Its humped contour, combined with the brush-painted lilac exterior looked like a lurid Easter egg rolling down the streets.  The driver’s door handle and latch were broken, and exiting meant Melanie had to coax her window open and undo a brass slide bolt screwed to the outside of the car.  

Every night that summer, we cruised Kansas City in her car with an unspoken permit for good girls gone awry.  On one of them, we attracted five boys in a three-tone rumbling jacked-up jugaad.   While they followed us down Main Street, our friend hung her torso out the front passenger window.  Before long, a dark green sedan with two women materialized beside us.

“Pull over, you little whores,” the Medusa haired passenger yelled.  

Melanie and I looked at her and sang our go-to for disapproving adults: ‘What a drag it is getting old.’

“If you know what’s good for you, stop your car.”  Mel sped up.  The Dodge sputtered.  The driver forced her to jump the curb onto the empty sidewalk.  The only thing The Dodge’s tires had in common was baldness, and within seconds, two were flat.

She hit the brakes and I said, “Keep going, Mel.”

“I can’t drive on the rims!”  We learned that from our mother.

“Who cares about the rims if we’re dead!  Go.  Go!”

By then, Medusa was outside our window.  “Get out of that heap.”

Nearly petrified, I managed to lean toward the window and say,  “What could you possibly want.”

“I want you to get out of that car.”  In an unfamiliar work type uniform, she stood taller than our mom who was six feet, one inch.  “Where is your mother?”

“None of your beeswax,” Melanie said.

To no avail, the woman grabbed the dead door handle.  Her rage prevented her from noticing the slide bolt right next to it.  I reached across and opened the passenger door, shoved our friend out, and as we scooted across the seat to follow, our tormentor captured a handful of Melanie’s luxurious tresses.  

“Steph, she’s got me!”  Turning back, I gave the woman’s wrist a quick karate chop, she let go, we stumbled onto the sidewalk and into the arms of the boys from the jalopy.  In all the commotion, we’d forgotten about them.

As motley as their car, all five circled us, including a Vietnam vet on crutches, one leg missing.  The oldest, tall, dark, and Buddha soft, grabbed the swinging passenger from behind.  She thrashed and screamed, “Little whores, they don’t know what they’re doing.”  

“They’ve got the message,” he said, barely above a whisper, “You need to stop.”  As if hypnotized, Medusa collapsed and the episode came to a close.  The boys drove us home and Melanie quickly replaced the Dodge with a red Volkswagen Beetle.

Back then, I believed our independence and luck were beyond cool: they were epic.  It took many years to recognize our nocturnal forays for what they were: a need to be seen.  Otherwise, we never would have collided with the viperous Medusa and her particular desperation to exercise adult supervision.   

Photo by Marissa Bridge

 

7: Rejectamenta

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From the Oxford English Dictionary: rejectamenta, n. [‘Seaweed, debris, etc., washed up by sea or tides or floodwaters.’]

On the shore of a Caribbean cruise ship route, my friend owned a diving resort that sat on a half mile of beachfront.  As if never to be seen again, all ship trash was conveniently dumped overboard.  I expected to have to tiptoe across paradise through the sands of rejectamenta, but disembodied doll parts, dead toothbrushes, de-thonged flip-flops, torn beachwear, broken toilets, and worse, went on for otherwise empty miles.

This was in the Yucatan, about an hour above Belize, isolation that attracted a community of  lost or crooked souls: a Norweigan baker who couldn’t buy decent wheat from a culture that lives on corn; the maniac builder of the resort who sold it to John.  Rumor had it, the builder took a couple, his co-owners at the time, on a boat ride. When they returned, the husband was not with them, nor was he ever seen again.

An excellent chef did all the cooking for guests and staff.  Young and strong bodied when I met him, his lungs were compromised by untreated tuberculosis.  He’d tried to procure the necessary treatment drugs but they were not available to the average citizen in Mexico, and he’d accepted his fate.

John hired two girl cousins from Guatemala to help in the kitchen.  While freely practicing Catholicism and tropical herbal medicine, the novelty of living amongst a bunch of bohemians was fine with them, until one unknowingly ate pot brownies baked by the chef.  How many were ingested was unclear, but she loved sweets and ended up on a bad trip.  Suspecting a spell placed on her by a jealous housekeeper who denied the accusations and threatened to quit, full disclosure would have been a simple cure.    Inconsolable beyond the duration of a normal pot induced high, telling her meant possible arrest or losing her help so no one confessed to the cause.

Upon her insistence, John drove her deep into the jungle to a curandero, a shaman.  She explained to the healer that an evil curse left a live snake in her throat.  As if a common complaint, the remedy was immediate: raw eggs in their shells rubbed all over her body.  After the egg rolling, she was driven to her uncles’ to convalesce.  Those guys refused to let her return to the resort unless a ransom was paid.  That did not happen, and in spite of really needing her, she was gone.

Of all the members in this community, the most enduring was an expat named Suze.  Her hair and vocal force were styled after Janis Joplin.  She originally arrived on scene in search of her father, a local, who impregnated her vacationing mother in the late sixties.  Suze lived in a pair of bent trailers near the beach.  For a couple of dollars a night, she rented rooms to stragglers and every penny she made was spent on tequila and beer, the lubrication for her nightly parties.

One afternoon while walking on the beach with her through the minefield of trash, so many stories cycling through our conversation, she said, “What are you doing down here?”

“Spending time with John,”  I said, avoiding the details of our complicated history of love-gone-by and the uncertainty of finding it again.  “What about you, are you planning to stay?”

“It’s not about making plans,”  she said.  “The reason people end up here is because they’re either wanted and unwanted.”

Photo of rejectamenta by Marissa Bridge

Wormwood

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I’m working on a book about a life in herbs, and this excerpt is from a bigger piece on wormwood: Artemisia Absinthium, or absinthe, AKA the Green Fairy.  It was first made as a cough syrup.  The rest is history and some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

 *   *   *

On a snowy New Year’s Eve upstate, after a few sips of the bitter concoction of absinthe, I carried my other-worldly-milky-green-fluid upstairs.  Jamie came up with me, leaving Matt alone with the bottle.   When we were both almost ready to leave for a party, we heard him making his way up the stairs, a detectible struggle in every step.  Leaning on the frame of my bedroom door, his consonant-less words spilled in my direction.  “I don’ wanna see you get old, Steph.”

“What in the world, Matt?  Go get dressed.  We should have left an hour ago.”

“I can’t bear to see your teeth fall out and your skin hang on you like a skeleton.”

As I put on my mascara, I said,  “Get out of here now.  You’re freaking me out.”

“I’m not kidding.  It’s just too sad to think about seeing my loved ones go from beautiful to ugly.”

“Oh God, how much ‘Madness in a Bottle’ did you drink?”

“Only two.”  I learned long ago that his capacity to count liquids is impaired.  “But what if you get age spots and your hair goes thin…”

Absinthe is linked to the ruination of a few generations of writers and artists, especially in France.  Thujone, the chemical component once thought to be what drove everyone nuts is much lower in modern formulas, which is what we were drinking.  But now it’s believed it wasn’t thujone causing naked parades in the street, a jailed Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh to cut off his ear, Verlaine to shoot Rimbaud, or Hemingway to commit suicide.  The current belief is they were all suffering from alcohol poisoning: starting in the morning, going deep into the night, seeking new forms of literature and art.

“Of all nights, Matt, God help me.  New Year’s Eve is hard enough.  As long as I can think, I consider myself vital, so leave me out of this crap.”   I slammed the door.

From the hall, I heard, “It’s the Green Fairy talking, Steph.”

I yelled, “You’re morbid.”

“What if your breasts start to hang down to your waist.“

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,”  I said, opening and slamming the door again and again, as if the whoosh of air were capable of changing the course of history.

*   *   *    

Dixie Davis, photographer and artist, lives in Tuscon, Arizona with her husband, Tom, their dogs, fish, flowers, and a life in the desert that she chronicles daily with her beautiful eye and appreciation in the natural world.

 

The Capsicums

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The Capsicums

Cayenne pepper has been an integral part of my medicine cabinet for fifty years.  It’s always been referred to as The Master Herb, and I confer.  Upon discovery of its benefits, I avoided more than one perilous trip to a medical office, especially for sinus, ear, and throat issues, frequent complaints in my youth. Doctors are not above The Harvey Weinstein Syndrome, especially then, and trust in their profession became hard-earned.  But their prurience drove me to a body of knowledge in self-care, and an eventual healing practice.

For emergencies in travels, a bit of cayenne is worth the space it t consumes in a curated-down-to-the-ounce suitcase.  Traveling in the former Yugoslavia, early nineties, my friend and I met a local writer along our unplanned route, and before we gave it much thought, we were sitting on the deck of a freighter, traveling to the pastel island of Cres in the Istrian Sea.  After checking into an austere room in someone’s house, I changed into my swimsuit and jumped in the water.  Within seconds, a blast of wind circled my head and resulted in an earache and a raw throat.

Our new friend possessed a natural ability in languages, and eventually understood I was asking for cayenne for a concoction.  After going into a number of grocery stores on my behalf, he said, “We don’t use cayenne in this country.”

Remembering a chicken dish from nearby Hungary, I said, “I’ll try paprika.”

Also a member of the capsicum (pepper) family, I later learned paprika has many of the same anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant properties as cayenne.  He went back in the store and came out smiling.  I squeezed the juice of a lemon into a water bottle, put in a pinch of paprika and drank it down, repeating hourly until bedtime.  By the next morning, my fellow travelers no longer peered at me from the front seat of the car as if they were plotting a drive-by/drop-off at the nearest hospital.

This series of shorts is not meant to be an herbal medicine guide, so only a few basics of cayenne’s benefits are addressed above.  But in writing this, I recalled that in addition to lowering blood pressure, it can be mixed with water for an effective bug repellent in vegetable gardens.  And cayenne is used in self-defense in the form of pepper spray.

In all these years, I’ve never carried it in my purse, and now I don’t really need it.  Well, maybe for general safety, but it’s certainly no longer necessary to repel unwanted sexual advances.   Personally, at this stage in life, being referred to by a man as wise, glamorous, intelligent, or strong, are all preferable to the minimizing label of ‘hot.’

Shepherd’s Purse

 

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In the late 60’s, with weeks of constant flow in the female nether land, the only doctor who didn’t immediately dismiss me suggested I needed a hysterectomy; that or a psychiatrist.  Fearful, enraged, and determined to find better options, I left his office and immediately and purchased several books on herbal medicine.  The first thing I read was that the surgical term, hysterectomy, came from the word hysteria.

Looking through an index, I discovered a very thorough section on my symptoms.  Shepherd’s Purse, a common herb, was highly recommended for its positive results.  My ex and I lived in a loft downtown, and many times I’d walked by an old-style apothecary, and until that day had never had a pressing reason to enter,.  I went in and asked for Shepherd’s Purse, imagining the proprietor would sell me dried leaves in a little packet, very little interaction, and I would be free to go home and make a tea.

“What do you need with that particular herb,” he asked.  I was more than unprepared to have an intimate dialogue, but compared to the previous doctors who asked nothing, he was kindly and respectful and it took very little time for him to gather all the gory data.

With surprising agility, he climbed a rickety rolling ladder, almost to the ceiling, and came back down with a tin labeled Shepherd’s Purse.  Stationing himself at a stained counter, while I read through the walls of his inventory, he brewed the concoction.  Handwritten instructions were taped on the brown bottle of the formula.  As he gave it to me, he said, “Listen carefully,  At all times, you must keep your feet warm.”

Within a few hours, my feet were completely numb with a cold not felt anywhere else in my body.  And the cramps increased by the minute.  But following his directions, I soaked my tootsies in hot water, which had the extra benefit of a more relaxed abdomen, and continued the appropriate dosages.  By day three, the month long onslaught was history.  The symptoms being dealt with, I had a long way to go in discovering the causes, mostly stress, but I possessed the bare bones of an herbal library, which has continued to serve as my personal insurance against hysteria.

Stephanie Urdang

Goodbye and Welcome

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Every December, someone tells me they’ll be glad when the year is over.  The first thought is always, ‘It’s not the year.  It’s life.’  But this one has been a doozy.  Yes, positive strides are in evidence, yet the daily combo of backsliding, global suffering, ecological disasters, fear, violence, and ridiculous politics hover over our collective heads like an iron clad cloud.

With plenty to be thankful for, I do not dare tally up the number of deaths in my little orbit these past twelve months: young, old, disease, natural causes, suicide, the passing of a mentor, and a pedestrian mowed down by a truck.  Plus, 2017 marks the disintegration of more than one personal relationship.

Since August, I’ve been on a break from Wild Nature of New York.  Along with grim reality, my silence came from facing the indulgence factor in personal writing.  All creative energy was funneled into the renovation of my apartment.   And in every dusty step I thought about what to write next: articles on healing and well-being, a fictionalization of the life and untimely death of my sister Gretchen, a collection of essays for a book, and too many other ideas to list.

By now, I, too, am relieved to say goodbye to 2017.  And it was just last night while talking to my writer friend, John Gibson, that I had a breakthrough.  In conversation about politics and journalism, I said, “I’s time to create a new reality.”

To start, inspired by a book John gave me for Christmas, I’ll publish the first piece in a new series next weekend.  And oh, what a relief it is.  Whether my new works are on the personal as universal, fiction, essays, or journalism, writing is the blood of my being.  It’s as inevitable and necessary as the coming of 2018.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy New Year,                                                      Stephanie

#6: Phrontistery

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Definition of Phrontistery: noun, a place to think or study

My niece, Hayley, jumped into bed in the middle of the day and covered her head.  We were on vacation near Sarasota, trying to balance homework with a good time.  Through a muffled voice, she kept saying, “Leave Me Alone.”

A junior-high paper on the pros and cons of gun control was due in three days.  Her parents stood on each side of her, and opposing ends of the issue of weapons and permits.  They were gently unified in their goal that she just start writing and all would be solved.  But a contest of wills ensued, and Hayley popped her head out from the blankets.  She said, “I’m thinking!”

I butt in with, “In her mind she’s working on it.”

What looks like stalling to others can be vital to the process of getting in the chair with a firm concept from which to build.  My strategies include whispering to my orchids, talking to myself, or arranging new vignettes from my vintage French pottery collection.  The gym is good for finding the rhythm of a dialogue, but running errands kills the day.  So does a lot of talking with others during peak writing hours.  Hiding under the covers wouldn’t be my choice, but when Hayley came out, she was ready to write.

Creative concepts naturally happen in all kinds of situations.  But to grasp from the ethers the perfect phrase, a well thought out essay, a finished book, or to write as a spiritual practice, a phrontistery is required.  I need proper ergonomics in an aesthetic environment, and silence.  Otherwise, Good Ideas Gone By is the only story there is.

Photo of orchid by Marissa Bridge

P.S:  For the rest of August, Marissa and I are suspending this column.  We need to sink into our individual phrontisteries and work on bigger projects.  Bearing much gratitude for you, our followers, we’ll resume soon.