Number 31

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Alcatraz Swim for Sight, October 23 2016 image: http://www.sfgate.com

The helpful young woman wore a headlamp and a big smile as she wrote on the back of my hand in thick black permanent marker. 31. She wrote it on both of my hands. And then she handed me a goody bag containing a cap and ear plugs and waved me on into the early-morning darkness with a cheery and very heartfelt “good luck.” I stumbled over a rock and swallowed. I’d come this far.

I stared down at the numbers inked onto my hands. I doubted my own ability to withstand the next couple hours, so my confidence in the staying power of a few black marks on my skin was tenuous. Even if it was a Sharpie. I have bony hands, and skinny fingers. My grandmother’s hands. The contours of the “3” hugged the veins, which seemed to pulse with nervousness even in the dark dawn. How will they know it’s me when they pull me out, if those inky numbers are gone from my hands? My heart was playing tricks on me. I took a breath of cool morning air, and noticed the sky already light. I turned east, toward the rising sun and looked out across the Bay. There it was.

Alcatraz.

It didn’t look so far away. Now my eyes were playing tricks on me too. Because it was. Far away. It was a whole two miles far away.

I’d never swum that far before. Suddenly I couldn’t wait for it to be over, one way or another.

***

The water was cold, some might say freezing although I know it doesn’t get below 55 these days. My toes and arms, the parts of me not swathed in neoprene, tingled and then went numb. Sometimes not feeling is the only way to get through it. I turned my head to breathe and caught a glimpse of the numbers on my hand. Here we go, 31.

The water was rough, and the waves were real. They were big and powerful and nothing like the swells I had been swimming through while training. It took me a few minutes and several mouthfuls of salty Bay water to realize I had to turn more than just my head to take an unobstructed breath. How is it no matter how long and how hard we train, no matter how many protein shakes we drink, no matter how much we think about it and talk about it and reassure ourselves there are no sharks in the Bay this year and the odds of being attacked by one are practically zero, no matter how prepared we think we are, we really aren’t? Because there are forces and wild elements much bigger than we can imagine out there, and when you’re floating somewhere between the world’s most famous prison and an elusive, misty shoreline the only thing to do is go with the current and keep. moving. forward.

Admittedly I wasn’t that prepared. I didn’t train as much as I should have, and I didn’t drink a protein shake after every swim. Often I opted for the pool instead of a session in the Bay, and sometimes I did neither. But, I told myself, I had swum from Alcatraz before and I knew what to expect and if nothing else, I had a wetsuit to keep me buoyant and goggles that didn’t leak and a strong freestyle stroke. And it wasn’t a race. It was a fundraiser for a cause I care deeply about, and it was a test of endurance and a chance to push myself into an uncomfortable place.

Kick, stroke, breathe. Kick, stroke, breathe.

There was nobody in the Bay but us. No early morning sailboats, no ferries full of tourists heading to Sausalito and no fishermen anticipating a good catch. There were no cruise or cargo ships gliding toward the San Francisco shore after a journey across the great Pacific. There was only us, one hundred swimmers in bright green caps with numbers on our hands. Kicking, breathing, pulling ourselves toward the shore. Picture-perfect San Francisco gleamed gently in the still-early light. Our beacon, the Palace of Fine Arts, stately and beautiful and still so far away. The sky was clear, and on my right the Golden Gate Bridge loomed large and distinctly red. International Orange, they call it.

I stopped kicking. Stopped swimming. Let my wetsuit hold me afloat in the middle of the famous Bay. Mermaid Bay, my daughter says. And it was magical.

My hands hit the shallow shore first. I planted my feet in the wet sand and moved forward almost on all fours before I unfurled from the water, hands in the air and every muscle in my face and body exhausted. “Don’t let me do this again,” I gasped to my husband as he wrapped his warm arms around my already shivering body. He smiled.

It took many hot showers and more than a few days for number 31 to fade from my hands. And my unique perspective of the Bay will stay with me forever.

‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

Made In America

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Summertime temperatures rise above 100 degrees in some parts, but not in June in San Francisco. In San Francisco the thick fog swirls up and down the windy streets, gray mist clings to early-morning eyelashes and to painted doors of old Victorians. The cable cars clang their way up the steep inclines above Fisherman’s Wharf, and if we listen closely we can hear the cruise ships sail into the Bay underneath the Golden Gate, their foghorns blaring through the cool morning air.

Our first summer in San Francisco.

Eighteen years ago.

We arrived on a typically foggy day in June – June 9 – although perhaps by the time we cleared customs and claimed our luggage the California sun had already chased away the fog, except for a few wispy clouds clinging stubbornly to the San Bruno hills. How amazing to know the great Pacific thrashed wildly, just beyond those hills. Half a world from where we had come. An L1/L2 visa, one suitcase and a backpack each. We always travel light. Even for this trip that would last the rest of our lives.

The details of that first day in our new home, exactly 18 years ago, are shrouded in a faint fog of lapsed memory, overwhelming emotions, and the self-absorbed obliviousness of the very young. I was 24 years and three weeks on that first day of the rest of our lives, and besides my almost-as-young husband (he was 25… at least one of us could rent a car!), I brought with me from South Africa no awareness whatsoever of real life in the United States. Everything I knew about America I learned from “Dallas.” Now it was 1998. It had been a long time since anyone cared who shot JR.

I don’t remember much of that first day, those first weeks, because I was too young to know to remember. Too young to pay attention to the details, to note the immigration officer who checked my visa and stamped my passport, to clearly remember what we ate, what we spoke about, how we felt. What I remember are sounds, images, smells that roll across my brain like the opening scenes on the big screen: the impressive San Francisco skyline, which now looks nothing like it did then; the afternoon wind that blew the fog back over the hilly city that day (my first indication that I would always need an extra layer no matter what); the clang of the cable cars as we maneuvered our way through the city to our shingled apartment building on Post Street. Every great adventure should have a memorable soundtrack.

Eighteen years is a long time. It’s a lifecycle. The time it takes for a human to grow, develop and hopefully mature into what is considered a legal adult in most countries. Still too young to drink or rent a car in the U.S., American 18-year-olds can vote, join the army and are responsible for all their own decisions.

It is no coincidence then that during the last 18 years away from the country of my birth, I have grown, matured and learned to pay way more attention, in the country that has become my home:

In Gap jeans and a T-shirt, it’s easy to pass as an American, but what has always defined me as other is my accent. I hang on to it with pride and tenacity – along with my mother’s hot water bottle and my grandmother’s recipe for fish balls, it’s one of the few things I have left of my heritage. But early on I realized not everyone could understand my not-Australian-not-British-not-New-Zealand accent, and since mutual communication is key to forming new relationships, I learned to soften my t’s, roll my r’s, change my inflections and even my vocabulary. As any creature in nature knows, adaption is essential to survival.

While it took only a few days to say trunk instead of boot and to use miles instead of kilometers, American sports eluded me for years. Where I come from we play cricket not baseball, rugby is our national sport, and there is no NBA, NHL, or NFL. It took at least a decade and my own sports-playing kids for me to appreciate and understand the nation’s total obsession with real American sports (Go Warriors!). It’s my oldest who plays that most essentially American game, football, and from him I have learnt the value of participation, commitment, competition, and risk. He shows up for practice every weekday because that is what the team expects, and what he has come to expect of himself. On game days, he pads up, with mouth guard and helmet, and jogs onto the field where there is even greater expectation, and the risk of being hurt or worse. Every time he does that my heart stills in my chest and I hold my breath until his playtime is up, and then the air rushes back into my lungs. And every time he does that he teaches me what it means to put yourself out there, to take a chance with something unfamiliar, to be brave. It means you grow.

And of course it is here, in the U.S. of A. that I stumbled upon my first pair of red boots, and so began my deep love of country music and my exploration of the art of storytelling right here on RedBoots – because what is a country song if not a beautifully descriptive and very dramatic way of telling a story? All the elements of high drama complete with melody: small town, big truck, complicated relationship, whiskey, stolen kisses. American country music and my red cowboy boots helped me find my way to my own stories, and to a home for those stories. If there’s one accent I would trade my own for, it’s that deep Southern drawl!

Eighteen years. Indeed a lifecycle. In this time and in this country, I have become a wife, a mom four times over, a daughter who lives far away, a Warriors fan, a country music lover, a swimmer, a writer. Mostly though I have become someone I was always supposed to be: myself.

With tremendous gratitude to Linda Schreyer and her beautifully evocative prompts on “Home,” and to my dear friends Joanne Hartman and Annelies Zijderveld for helping me find a way in.

The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree stood at the top of our garden, right next to the driveway. The leafy branches cascaded down to the ground on all sides, creating a lush dappled escape from the hot and bothered afternoons of netball practice and math homework. The mulberries were plump and sweet, dark purple fruit smeared like a bruise against the bright green leaves. We spent hours sheltered in the bosom of that tree. When we crept out the sun was about to descend in the vast African sky. Streaks of mulberry juice were visible on our blue school uniforms, and the tops of our fingers and even our bare toes were stained violet. Mulberry stains linger for a while.

We languished in a warm frothy bubble bath until our fingers and toes were wrinkled and only the slightest trace of violet remained. We sang silly songs and added more bubbles, and even though we had spent all afternoon devouring mulberries, suddenly we were starving. We sat at the big table in the dining room, our long hair dangerously close to the deliciously greasy lamb chops and homemade French fries. The sun streaked the African sky red and orange, and the mulberry tree was a dark, friendly silhouette at the top of the garden. By now the crickets were singing their loud nighttime song, and soon we would go to bed, happy and full of mulberries, lamb chops and the simple childhood joy of early summer.

Those were the best of times. For me.

And the worst of times. For others.

My childhood memories are bright and vivid, photographs saturated with color and smiles: family barbecues, dance parties, sports events on the big fields at school, afternoons in the pool or in the mulberry tree at the top of the garden. There are cousins and friends, Granny’s ginger cake, and our fluffy Maltese poodle. Magnum. It was the 80s and he was a handsome fellow.

It was South Africa, in the 80s. A complicated, uneasy time and place of separation and oppression, of deep and offensive division, of struggle and survival. A time and place where the same African sun rose and set on people of every size and every color, but with different degrees of warmth and comfort.

A time and place of apartheid. The only time and place I knew.

Our house was big and comfortable, with a pool in the front yard and a swing set in the back. Sometimes, during school vacations, our housekeeper’s daughter, Avril, would come stay with her mother in her rooms downstairs for a few days. The rooms were separate from our house, sparsely furnished, comfortable and reassuring. A brightly woven rug warmed the concrete floor and the bed was raised on bricks to keep away the evil tokoloshe sprite, a common practice in South African cultures.

Avril and I were the same age and we played on the swings in the backyard and ate mulberries together. Her home language was Sotho and she called me “Nee-gee” in heavily accented English. English was the only language we spoke to each other, and it didn’t occur to me that perhaps she wouldn’t know how to speak it. My Sotho never progressed beyond Dumela, o kae? Ke teng, wena o kae? (Hello, how are you? I’m fine, how are you?)

She would stay with her mother for just a few days, before going back to the township where she lived with her father or grandmother or aunt, or all three. How difficult to grow up anywhere, but especially in a time and place like that, without your mother in your daily life? My mother called me inside to get ready for ballet class, and I did not think about Avril until the next time she came to visit her mother.

Such was my life in apartheid South Africa.

I like to visit my childhood. I like to remember my grandmother’s cakes, and those hot, simple days in the mulberry tree. My heart aches with longing when I smell woodsmoke at twilight, such a distinctly African smell, and the sight and scent of fragrant jasmine in early spring always makes me homesick. For my childhood. In apartheid South Africa.

The memories are happy ones, of a young, growing girl with fingers stained purple, living a full and joyful life. As young, growing girls should do. But there is guilt and real pain in those memories, for all the girls, all the children, that didn’t grow up the way I did: in the leafy shade of a very special mulberry tree.

Inspired by the prompt “Hiraeth” from Linda Schreyer.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “How I grew up to the be the one I am now…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by this week’s sentence-thinker-upper Upasna Sethi of Life Through My Bioscope.

My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.