Swimming with Sharks, and The Worst Hard Time

It’s hard–really, really hard–to put yourself in the perspective of a homesteader in the Texas panhandle when you’re surrounded by views like this.

Swimming with Sharks at Spanish Steps, GuamThere are sharks in that water. Black-tipped reef sharks. And I got pretty close and personal with a few of them this afternoon.

Swimming with sharks is one of those things that divers and snorkelers around here shrug off: “Oh, sharks? Psssh. I punched one in the face last week. No biggie.”

Though I’ve done a pretty good chunk of diving and snorkeling in my two years here, I’d never seen one up close until today. And even though most Guammies don’t think it’s a big deal to see them in the water (and even though I must admit that the sharks I swam with today were pretty small by most standards), I’m unreasonably happy.

Anyway.

Soaking up the tropics–and having cool bragging rights like swimming with baby reef sharks in the wild (cough)–makes it hard to imagine a different time and place where clouds of dust rose more than 20,000 feet into the sky and smothered little homesteads and towns in the Great Plains. But that’s what I’ve been reading about.

The Worst Hard Time tells the story of the American Dust Bowl–a period of intense drought and dust storms that hit a vulnerable area at the very worst time possible.

The Worst Hard Time CoverI think it’s interesting that many Goodreads reviewers make comments like, “I didn’t finish this book. It was too depressing.” Um, the title didn’t tip you off?

You can’t read an honest book about the Great Depression in general, and the dust bowl in particular, and expect it to be anything but depressing. You just can’t.

The Worst Hard Time reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, though the two are dramatically different. Hiroshima compresses the pain of the most devastating manmade disaster in history into 152 dense pages (pages that, if you’re me, make you want to throw up at times).
The Worst Hard Time also covers a devastating manmade disaster, but in this one, you become far more invested in the lives of the homesteaders and in their dreams for the future, which makes it even harder to watch them struggle.
I can’t help but sympathize with the homesteaders’ plight. But. Their attitudes are overwhelmingly irritating. Why didn’t they just leave? I wish I could ask them if their stubbornness to stay on the land was worth the lives of the children they lost to “dust pneumonia.” All those babies sleeping with wet sheets over their cribs and Vaseline in their nostrils to filter out the dust, only to die slowly because their lungs filled with dirt.
The homesteaders couldn’t afford to leave, but they couldn’t afford to stay, either–not with banks foreclosing on their properties and the ground unwilling to grow even a carrot during the worst of the drought years. Why not go someplace where there may not be jobs, but at least the very air isn’t trying to kill them? Even though I’m baffled by the stubbornness to stay in a place that was killing them, the stories of these sturdy homesteaders did break my heart.
Though I’m miles away from West Texas now, the story of the Dust Bowl hit particularly close to home for me since I grew up near the southern end of the dust bowl at the bottom corner of the Texas panhandle. I saw the desert that was once fertile grassland, and have heard Grandma talk a little about her family who took on the (derogatory) title “Okies” with pride and made a home for themselves.
Much of The Worst Hard Time follows the folks of Dalhart, TX. I’ve been there. Really makes the history come alive when you realize that those little wide-spot-in-the-road towns have such deep (and, in this case, painful) histories.
 Dust-storm-Texas-1935
I love the way Timothy Egan weaves together the story of this time from the lives of people—German, Irish, and other settlers, including the Comanche Indians who called the land home, the old cowboys of the XIT ranch, African Americans who had the misfortune of passing through those racist communities, and those of mixed ancestry who loved the land.
Egan also covers the media’s reports of the phenomenon to the rest of the States and their not-so-sympathetic response to those living in the dust bowl during the Depression. Lots of new perspectives from newspapers, personal diaries, and interviews that we never hear about from the history books.

I kept finding myself putting the book down so I could research. A Google image search yields some mind-boggling photos of dust storms burying homes under layers of silt.

Books like this make me love non-fiction and wish there were more books like this.

Stockpiling Sunshine

A couple of days ago, I decided that the cold I had been nursing wasn’t going to kill me. With that in mind, the husband and I went on one and a half hikes: one to Taguan Point and half of one to the Anao overlook.

Taguan Point  Guam The Taguan Point hike is also known as One Thousand Steps (Ten Thousand Steps? or something). It’s actually more like 257 according to The Best Tracks on Guam, but I didn’t count to verify. My postpartum body thought it was closer to ten thousand; every step on the way back up, those steep stairs taunted me.

Remember every day you skipped that prenatal pilates? In favor of white chocolate? Aren’t you regretting it now? Tee hee hee. 

About two-thirds of the way up, I was gasping for air and responding in angry grunts to everything the husband said. “Are you going to die?”

Ungh.

“Look at this cool lizard!”

Urghmph.

“The roots of that tree are all twisty!”

Mblurgah.

I am dying, and the tree is all you care about?

I think if he had told me that we won a million dollars, that the sun was falling from the sky, or that a bloodthirsty wild boar was barreling up the steps after me, I would have responded in much the same way.

You gain a lot of perspective once you catch your breath, thankfully. It was a beautiful short hike. There were some pretty cool twisty tree roots. And lizards. And clear blue waters beating against the sharp limestone coast.

Taguan Point Coastline

The Anao hike became just half a hike because we realized the sun would set long before we’d be able to make it down the cliff and back up again. We parked in a sketchy-looking neighborhood next to a nice-looking house bordered by a yard with a couple dozen beautiful, feisty-looking roosters that were obviously being raised for less-than-admirable purposes (I’ll save my Guam-cock-fighting-post for another time). Then we trekked about twenty minutes over a beer-can-studded trail to a beautiful overlook of the eastern side of the island.

This trail was blissfully flat (at least the half we traversed was), and it involved no gutteral sounds or feelings of hopelessness and despair. This was refreshing. Also, the view. This is a bad iPhone picture, but there’s just so. much. blue.

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Over the past week, I’ve been trying to make up for all that prenatal pilates I missed. Those who have experienced stillbirth or late miscarriage know–and I’m learning–that one of the most haunting aftereffects is having a postpartum body and no baby to legitimize it. It’s also a reminder that my apathy toward any kind of legit exercise while I was pregnant was not a good choice.

A friend recommended Blogilates, so I decided to give it a try. So far, the POP Pilates guru, Cassey Ho, is perky enough to keep me interested without being terribly irritating. This sets her a mile apart from many other workout instructors whose classes I’ve attended or watched. And she’s such a prolific You Tube-r that you could probably do a different POP Pilates video each day for a year without repeating any.

I can deal with that for now–pilates, rest, and stockpiling as much Guam sunshine as I can for future cold New England days.

Tuesdays With Morrie, and coping with a common cold

This week has been full of Kleenex, honeyed hot tea, and whining. Every time I come down with a common cold, I go through a faulty coping process.

#1: reasoning. odds are this will only last a week. I can do this for a week.

#2: acceptance. I am destined to be sick for an unknown period of time, and I will resign myself to being miserable.

#3: denial. if I act like I feel wonderful, then I will, because I’m just feeling sorry for myself and it’s all in my head 

#4: anger. what did I do to deserve this? I am being robbed of perfectly good days I could be using to do things

#5: fighting. This must be some horrific new strain of rhinovirus. If hot apple cider vinegar diluted with water and honey helps, then straight vinegar shots straight from the bottle must work ten times better. 

All of that nonsense inevitably leads to a form of depression, during which I come to terms with the fact that I have a bad attitude and could be doing profitable things with my time. I then turn into an unreasonable, sneezing, hacking, witchlike creature who expects everyone to proffer chicken soup and foot rubs. More than once, I went nose-to-oozy-nose with my longsuffering husband and proclaimed that I was dying and that my head would soon explode.

Tuesdays_with_Morrie_book_coverMaybe it’s appropriate, then, that the 2015 reading list book I knocked out has everything to do with dying.

To check off the “Book a Friend Recommended” category, I read Tuesdays With Morrie. Because I generally avoid this type of sentimental live-each-day-as-though-it’s-your-last genre, this one was definitely out of the box and entirely based on a good friend’s recommendation.

It’s a quick read, barely more than a long essay, and… well, though I admit Mitch Album has a magical touch with short, sentimental books, it was far from my favorite. I read it in a couple of sittings. It’s not boring.

But I found the whole concept rather cliché. Live like you’re dying. Hug your mom. Carpe diem. All 192 pages say essentially the same thing in different ways. One Goodreads reviewer says it reads like a hundred greeting cards strung together, and I can relate.

As a Christian, the Tuesdays With Morrie philosophy offers some truths I can agree with. Primarily, the necessity of coming to terms with the fact that we’re not immortal and that we shouldn’t act like it. Also the overwhelming importance of love (even for those we’ve never met).

But Morrie’s solution to the problem of death is  an exhaustingly diluted philosophy that doesn’t offer much meaning or purpose at all. Morrie becomes a professor by default because he can’t stand the thought of taking advantage of someone by being a businessman or a lawyer. He borrows from all religions to frame his world in the way he wants–and to give himself hope.

Toward the end of his battle with ALS, he admits (as though this is a weakness?) to praying to God in order to deal with his suffering. Hints of typical Eastern thought: we’re all waves in the ocean. True, one day we’ll crash into the shore and lose our identity, but we’ll still be part of the sea, so it’s OK after all.

So. Lots quotable quotes. Makes you deal with the reality of death and want to legitly carpe diem all over the place. But it’s built on a patchwork philosophy of self-comfort, which leads to not really knowing what you believe about life or death at all.

The book did make me feel like I should be handling my cold with a little more aplomb. As did an unexpected gift from my husband when he came home from work today: an incredibly fuzzy, fluffy owlet with a crooked beak that makes everything better. I shall call him Quill.

IMG_2743 - Version 2

2015 Reading Goals

I’m slowly coming out of my post-college book slump. You know what’s kind of pathetic? Eating an entire container of hummus in one sitting. Also, having a degree in English literature and not knowing how to answer the question “What’s your favorite genre?” or “Who’s your favorite author?”.

When I was a middle-schooler, it was fantasy, re: every Cinderella rewrite ever published. In high school, it was classic English novels (I met Dickens when I was in tenth grade, fell in love, and read most of his novels that year). In college, it became whatever I had to read for classes, with little time for anything else, so it was Homer, Camus, Roethke, Brontë, Euripides, Shakespeare…

Now I have no idea what I prefer. Not sci-fi. NOT chick lit. Not Game of Thrones, despite my husband’s best efforts. Everything conservative in me balks at most of the stuff on the “most popular” lists.

I’ve found some YA stuff I love, but it hurts my (misguided?) sense of literary pride to spend the majority of my reading time on it. Creative nonfiction is good; if well-written (think Unbroken), it’s as riveting as a novel, and it leaves me feeling like I haven’t wasted my time on fluff.

Not wasting my time on fluff seems very important recently.

But I’m feeling stuck. This is the year to read out of my comfort zones and try to figure out a more decent-sounding response to the question I’ve started to dread: What do you like to read?*  

Something has to change.

Because an English grad who casts down her eyes and mutters the words “wide variety” and “whatever is well written” in response is an English grad who feels like she’s sacrificed her credibility on the altar of indecision.

She then resorts to sitting with her phone scouring Oyster and Goodreads for the perfect-sounding book to read, while unwittingly eating eight servings of hummus at once.

Pathetic.

Personal goal: Read 52 books this year. Make half of them non-fiction. Figure out my favorites.

Maybe something like this is a good place to start:

From A Girl Who Reads, on Popsugar.

*Maybe the very question is flawed. Or maybe there’s never going to be a simple answer for someone who reads widely. Maybe I’m not as messed-up as I feel? :D

A Million Oceans

Philippine Sea They say you can never step into the same river twice. You can’t look at the same ocean twice, either. Every moment is a million different oceans with different blues, different facets, and different waves, like violent lace crowning the shore.

I was floating in one of those liquid moments the other day, thinking about plans for leaving Guam and all the headache-inducing minutia that goes along with the process, when a sobering thought hit me: the thing I’ll miss the most isn’t necessarily the beach or that moment-by-moment ocean that I can see from my backyard.

I’ll miss the pictures, drawn with both cameras and words, that I wish I could step back into. But I’ll never really remember how beautiful and alive moments are–how floating in these Pacific waters feels like swimming in a diamond, or how the blue of the deep water is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes. Too perfect a color. I bet that’s a taste of what heaven will look like.

The sad part is that as soon as I step out of that ocean and walk away from that moment, I can’t remember how nearly perfect it was. I suppose Massachusetts will have to replace those moments with a few of its own.

A Bitter Gift

FootprintsOn December 22, 2014, I gave birth to a little girl. She died before she made it into my arms.

She was due today.

One of the things I hate about having a personal blog (or any social media) is having to share moments like these. Part of me wants to skip over it, but that seems crass. I don’t want to give readers the impression that my baby’s birth didn’t affect me profoundly, or that I’m exactly the same person I was before. I’d like to go on from the present as though everyone already knows the context.

But pretending won’t work here. I also can’t bring myself retell my story by writing a separate post. That might have worked a couple of weeks ago, but now I’ve healed enough that I don’t really want to open that wound again. So I’m just transcribing a few excerpts from my handwritten journal. It’s personal, unpolished, sad, and it doesn’t begin to capture what all happened, so if you aren’t up for that, feel free to skip this post and come back in a few days when I have something a little less tearful to say.

Miriam Grace Jacoby 

Excerpt from 12/23/2014

She had a full head of dark brown hair. The most perfect little nose. Some newborns aren’t as cute as others, but this one was beautiful.

It was just over three weeks until my due date. On Saturday evening, right before we went to the airport to pick up our holiday guests, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in hours. So I drank a big glass of ice water, poked my belly a few times, and waited. Nothing. Still no movement after dinner that night.

Jess, the friend who’d be staying with us for the next week and a half, grinned as she looked at me and my huge pregnant belly.

“Does it kick?” she asked.

I hesitated. “Yes, it usually does.”

Manny and I talked about going to the hospital, but it was late and I told him I was probably just being paranoid. We decided to wait until the next day. Surely I would have felt those familiar wiggles and punches by then.

I slept restlessly that night–lots of incoherent dreams. I remember dreaming that there was an earthquake, and everything felt like that–shaky and uncontrollable on a bigger-than-life scale. I woke up over and over again to struggle to get comfortable, hands on my belly, waiting for the baby to move.

We drove to the hospital rather than church the next morning, still sure we were being paranoid but not so sure that we didn’t want to hear our baby’s heartbeat and have someone assure us that everything was okay.

It wasn’t okay. I knew as soon as the nurse put the doppler on my belly near the baby’s back and all we heard was static.

That was the longest day, but somehow the hours passed quickly. They induced labor. The doctor broke my water at 1 a.m. In a normal labor, I thought, I would have told them no. Do not strip my membranes. Do not break my water.

I wanted to tell the doctor to stop, to let things progress normally and unhurriedly. But now my baby’s life wasn’t at stake, and I wanted it to end so I could go home.

After they broke my water, contractions sped up drastically, the pain set up shop in my lower back, and I stopped handling life well. I got in the shower, told Manny to leave me alone, let water as hot as I could stand it course down my back, and resisted the urge to beat on the walls with my fists.

So this is back labor. I wonder if the baby is posterior.

This is worse than that abscessed tooth I had two years ago.

So this is my punishment for looking down my nose at women who choose epidurals without even trying. 

If I could have managed a grim laugh, I would have.

In some ways, the pain seemed appropriate. Not because I seriously thought I was being punished for anything. It seemed appropriate that my baby’s death, which I hadn’t even been aware of until that morning, shouldn’t be an easy thing.

I remember talking to myself and praying in the shower.

Oh, God, please help me. I know you are in control. My world is shaking. Please help. 

I remember staggering out of the shower during one of the too-short moments between contractions and telling Manny I wanted an epidural. I had told him a few hours before not to let me get one if I asked for it. He convinced me to try other painkillers first.

I remember holding on to him, clenching the quilt he’d brought from home, hearing him ask me to trust him, digging my fingernails into his back, crying as I realized that every movement and every breath seemed to make the pain worse. And I remember asking for narcotics and then feeling dizzy, almost catatonic in between contractions, and thinking that the meds were doing absolutely nothing for the pain.

Apparently about four hours passed like this–me almost in a trance, alternately demanding counter-pressure, then telling Manny not to touch me, then apologizing for snapping at everyone, and then falling asleep for a few seconds, not knowing who I was talking to and not really caring what they said.

She came out in just four or five pushes. A nurse put her on my chest immediately, and I’ll never forget how that felt. She was warm, and slippery, and limp, and beautiful. All that hair. I cried from relief–the pain stopped immediately–and I cried because suddenly having a child of my own had become real–and I cried because she was so very, very still.

I ran my finger down her nose and couldn’t believe how soft her skin was. I put my hand on her head and all the heartbreak and pain melted into numbness–or just exhaustion and drowsiness from the meds.

The nurses cleaned her up, weighed her, measured her, swaddled and dressed her, and brought her back in–5 pounds, 10 ounces, a too-still newborn. Manny held her, too. I asked them to leave her in the bassinet beside the bed, though my mind told me it didn’t make any sense to do so, and I slept. I didn’t care about a shower. I didn’t care that I was mostly undressed. I didn’t care that the nurses were trying to get four more vials of blood from my arm. All I wanted in the world was to rest.

Before I fell asleep, I heard Manny tell one of the nurses our daughter’s name: Miriam Grace. We had discussed both names, but neither seemed appropriate before; I especially hadn’t liked the name “Miriam” because it meant “bitterness.”

A couple of hours later, I woke up, climbed out of the hospital bed, dressed myself a bit more, and crawled onto the fold-out bed beside Manny.

“The niño is gone,” he said, lying his hand on my empty belly. I snuggled close to him.

“You chose a good name.”

He nodded. “Miriam because–bitterness. Grace, because she is a gift from God. Jacoby, because she is mine.”

There were more tears. We slept together on the uncomfortable hospital sofa bed, wrapped in surreal peace and pain.

It hadn’t seemed real to be pregnant, even at 36 weeks. It didn’t seem real to be in labor, or to hold my dead daughter afterward. When we came home later that day, I just felt empty, both belly and arms. We slept for hours. When I woke up, I could still see Miriam’s face, could still feel her slippery, wet body on mine.

I can’t believe she was born yesterday. I miss her and I never got to know her. “Miriam” also means “longed-for child,” which seems more appropriate now because now I’m longing for her more than I did before. Now she’s truly longed for, and now she is just what Manny named her: a bitter gift, but a gift nonetheless.

I want another child as soon as the Lord allows–not to replace Miriam, but because now I have an inkling of how precious and beautiful a child is. Because I’m craving a child that will squirm and demand things and nurse at my breast. Because I want to see Manny be a father. Because Miriam didn’t demand enough, and I didn’t get to love her enough.

Attempts at being unboring.

Pago Bay Sunrise“We’re so boring,” I whined to the husband a week and a half ago. “We need to get out more.”

Kind of easier to say than to do when on night shift, but still. We only have four months left on Guam, much of which will be taken up by a Baby Jacoby (!). We spend way too much time staring at the walls of our house.

The dog is depressed because we don’t take him on many walks or hikes. Even the blog is sadly neglected because I rarely feel like I do anything worth writing about anymore. Something has to give.

In an effort to find a change of scenery, a little over a week ago, we ventured out early to watch the sun rise. As we trekked toward the edge of a cliff on the northeastern side of the island to find an unobscured view, some of Guam’s less savory wildlife intercepted us. Two formidably large, large-tusked wild boars stopped on the trail about fifty feet ahead of us and stared us down.

We decided not to take them on.

Several days later, we decided to drag ourselves out to go snorkeling. A series of unfortunate events resulted in one unexpectedly large wave rolling us into the coral reef. The ocean stole my mask, removed one of my fins, and steamrolled one of my thighs into a rock or coral or something. It’s been a week since that adventure. My leg is now various shades of puffy blue, purple, and red.

A couple of days ago, we decided to try the sunrise thing again, this time in another location–a rocky, east-facing beach that promised good views. The weather seemed beautiful and clear except for a few big, puffy clouds that were supposed to make the sunrise brilliantly colorful. We found our spot on the beach and got comfortable on a big rock–no small feat with a 30-week-pregnant belly and a beat-up leg.

Then it started pouring–a thick, soaking shower from a cloud that had looked as innocuous as cotton candy a moment before. We were mostly soaked by the time we ran/waddled to the shelter of the pavilion several yards away.

Such is November on Guam.