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  • Writer's pictureChica Jo

What Am I? Part 1: Easter

My Right Hand with Spondylus & Finger Amputation "Joy - Lust - Sadness - Fear - Curiosity - Doubt" awkwardly drawn by my left hand

It all started with a disturbing call from a cherished, childhood friend on Easter Sunday. She was in a Virginia hell-scape while Paul and I were having a heavenly day aboard Triplefin between research expeditions. That’s when I got the sudden news that my friend’s life, along with that of her child, partner and farm, were imploding in a most horrendous way. Essentially, her husband suffers from severe PTSD and certainly more due to intense childhood traumas. My friend spent the last eight long years nursing her husband while desperately trying to get him the mental and emotional health care he needs, to no avail. Over those many years she endured the loss of a man she loved as he slowly became someone horribly different. She was the only thing keeping him and others safe from himself, as our social systems surely were not doing it. On that awful Easter she became his Judas. He threatened violence and disappeared. Now she was in a dark, deep, dangerous hole and needed a friend. To my own surprise I found myself automatically saying, “I’m sailing to the nearest airport to get on the first flight I can to be there with you!” A couple hours later, at the moment I was about to press the button to purchase those flights across the continent, I actually hesitated, hearing some internal voice of self-doubt say, “Maybe you shouldn’t go. You’ll just make things worse.” Where did that voice come from? Well, friends, the past couple months have given me some insight.

My accidentally-conceived-very-late-baby-of-the-Catholic-family-already-with-three-teenage-daughters-and-only-one-bathroom details can be filled in by you, I’m sure, so it will suffice to say that since the earliest of my pre-school memories I’ve believed a story of myself as both a selfish person and, as Paul says (and, Paul, you’ve gotta stop this!), an “in-the-way” nuisance. I’ve whole-heartedly believed this myopic story all my life, and lived it. For example, as a kid I fully believed, as I was frequently told, that if I didn’t behave and be quiet I would give my dad a heart attack; this after he almost died of one when I was three or four. When my favorite uncle did die of a heart attack I actually thought I killed him because earlier in the day I played a cute little joke on him and he got uncharacteristically mad at me. How did that self-fulfilling prophecy manifest in my adult life exactly? Here are just a couple real-life examples: When my first sister was slowly dying I did what I was taught to do in order to stay safe and also protect her from me; I kept my mouth shut about my confused and conflicting feelings and stayed away. (Heck, that’s when I moved away!) When Paul’s mom was taking her last breaths I bowed out of the hospital room on the pretense of “needing” to call my kid and was totally in the dark about my own buried emotions. When my son got married and his mother-in-law-to-be was busy making tamales and other wedding treats, I believed I’d only be an annoyance if I tried to help so . . . I kept my mouth shut about my feelings and stayed away. From the outside, those and other consequential decisions surely appeared selfish. But by this spring, when my pal-in-need called, I was starting to question that old, tired story of me and maybe, just maybe, I was about ready to face that toughest of adversaries: myself.

So, there I was, about to get my plane tickets and there was that inner, fearful voice needling me that my presence would just make things worse for my bud. Magically, my evidently-more-emotionally-mature-fingers did the walking and pressed Confirm Flights. Two days later I was zooming through the sky in my gotta-have-it window seat (silently judging the confounding 80% [Yes, I count. I always count.] of window-seated passengers who had their window shades down, ignoring the fossil-fueled, miraculous view of our planet from up high in favor of being entertained by a screen. Am I the only one deeply disturbed by this phenomenon? I mean, WTF?! I’ll pick it up in Part 2.) So, there I was, speeding through the atmosphere, wondering what words I could possibly say to comfort my friend and finally (finally!) going to someone I love instead of running or staying away. Oh, woman, how badly was I going to screw it up? You’ll find out in a moment when I get to the chickens.

First, a related word (well, several) about wanna-be-oysters. My boyfriend from high school and college used to go to the beach (Emerald Isle) with me and my family every August and he knew of my reputed selfish nature. We would walk the beach looking for shells and he would jokingly call me a shellfish; a cute play on words that helped soften my selfish label. In retrospect, that nickname was and is still more apt than either of us realized at the time. Let me introduce you to Spondylus limbatus, our local, spiny, Purple-Lipped Rock Oyster found from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to Peru.

(Use >arrows for Paul's pics of: Spondylus shell, mussel shell, live blue-eyed scallop, and live clam.)

Spondylus species are “thorny oysters” so not true oysters, actually, but similar in that they do cement themselves to a substrate instead of attaching with tough byssal threads like mussels do or free-swimming like scallops or dug in the mud like most clams (see Paul pics above to compare).

Our Purple-Lipped Oysters are the really dense, violet and orange shells we find middens of (like this one - photo by Paul) all around the shores of central Baja.

Spondylus spat on a peso. Paul photo.

As newly hatched, free-swimming, vulnerable larvae they take only 24 hours to grow a tiny yet complete shell.

Soon they search for a hard surface, preferably an adult Spondylus shell, and cement themselves in place. We humans call these youngsters “spats” which seems fitting but I don’t know why.

So, how are these growing and developing, young, purple-lipped spats like my young, developing self . . . and like us all as youngsters (and surely my friend’s husband)? Well, like all kids who seem to not be noticing what’s going on in the adult culture surrounding them, these shellfish do have eyes (lots of them - along the edges of their mantle lips!) and they are paying close attention to what’s going on around them. It’s with our eyes and ears that we human youngsters, like shellfish (see Paul's video below), filter “feed” our environment, are quite sensitive to it, and develop behaviors to suit it. We take in all that is going on around us in order to learn how to behave so as to keep ourselves safe and nurtured. But our society can become polluted. Just as with shellfish living in water that gets polluted by fertilizer runoff from chicken, hog, and cattle feedlots, there’s just too much nutrient density (let’s call it what it is: shit) in the environment and we and the shellfish grow sick as a response.*

As kids, like Spondylus spats, we too have well developed nervous systems that typically go unconsidered. But, if you were like kid-me, your nervous system was busy trying to protect you from all the contradictory and plain old, wrong thinking that you were exposed to in your environment. For example: “Spare the rod - spoil the child!” was my dad’s insistent refrain passed down to him by the weeping-willow-switch, and to me through the leather strap. I’m not blaming my parents here (I wouldn’t trade them or my big sisters for any others!) . . . they too were just innocent products of this dualistic (good -vs- evil), judgmental, punitive culture. A culture that has created very anxious adults . . . or at least it did with me.

Did you notice the pretty, protective spines on the Spondylus shells? We too developed some spikey defenses if anyone was to threaten to pry us open to expose our soft, vulnerable selves. Just tell your partner they seem a bit sensitive and watch how they react . . . likely pretty spikey. (Which is weird to me. I mean, who wants to be or befriend someone who is INsensitive?)

Crazily, I can even relate to the garishly purple lips of these shellfish. I happened to contract from my dad the virus that gives us ugly and painful fever blisters. Mine would flare up and almost cover my lips whenever I felt strong social-emotional stress, yet was conditioned not to express it. It seems that being a sensitive child makes adults uncomfortable. Indeed, I was literally taught by my old-Southern culture that “Children are to be seen, not heard.” Here’s a memorable example that will make sense of my above, leading illustration: When I was nine I slam-smash-torqued a half inch of my right middle finger off in our heavy basement door with the mangled bone jutting out in a skeletal “f’ you”. As I bawled in pain, Mom and Dad jumped into the car with me to get to the distant emergency room, but my dad just as quickly turned off the ignition and angrily yelled over his shoulder to terrified and agonized me in the back seat: “We’re not going anywhere until you stop that crying!” (BTW – That’s the day I realized my Mom was actually in charge. The look she gave him required no words to get him to re-start that Oldsmobile.) I so looked forward to every childhood beach week at Emerald Isle, but every holiday or vacation with family, when I felt anxiety about needing to just “stay out of the way” of my big sisters and “don’t be so emotional”, my self-protecting, clammed-up lips would be covered with raging, purple blisters on top of blisters. Like I was oyster-reef-building on my face! Which brings me to another related example of the figurative, cultural shit my little spat-self grew up filtering but was not allowed to openly react to: When I was in 3rd grade a highly respected educational leader in my school – someone I was taught not to question and to trust - said the following when he saw me with a particularly outrageous outbreak of fever blisters: “Oh! I see you’ve been kissing little black boys again.” Fortunately, my parents had already taught me how wrong that was (plus my mom and I had just watched Roots). But I remember it as a turning point in my childhood – when I realized that adults could be very, VERY wrong, and I started to question everything, albeit silently. (I also quietly decided I would purposefully try to date black boys, but it turns out there were none in my high school once I was dating age. But I still have a lingering, unrequited crush on Tony Tolliver . . . any of you BHS graduates remember him? I doubt he knew freshman me even existed. Sigh.)

Now, don’t think it’s all gloomy, this extended oyster simile! Sometimes, just sometimes, these Spondylus make good on their environmental irritations and grow a pearl. I feel like that’s what I’ve always done with my artwork and now with my writing (Hopefully you appreciate these literary balls of shiny nacre!). Not only can these mollusks make jewels out of their environmental irritants but these shellfish are indeed reef-building, keystone species who provide sheltering hidey-holes and surface area for countless other marine life (as evidenced by Paul's photo above). They’re crucial community builders who increase biodiversity in their ecosystem. I like to think of ourselves via Triplefin this way. The research and outreach projects we run are connecting different people to build a network of scientists around the Gulf of California all at the service of biodiversity. Spondylus and their ilk also clean the water and reduce erosion. Similarly with our work at sea, Paul and I are cleaning up marine pollution, especially those deadly ghost nets.

OK, just a bit more on Spondylus and me and I’ll get to the chicken fiasco. These animals’ big, colorful shells were a critical part of Pre-Columbian (particularly Aztec) culture. They were a celebrated gift from the gods cementing their human culture to nature.* The shells were used in jewelry, sculpture, and especially in intricately carved vests and masks like this Aztec bird mask. (Photo by Harry Grange**) Having any of these prized pieces showed that you were highly esteemed in the community. And, that brings us back to me, sitting in my prized window seat, peering around the wing to gaze as long as possible at each individual blooming redbud and dogwood who were spring-spangling the Blue Ridge from Charlotte to Charlottesville (see my pic below). I hadn’t experienced Appalachia in spring since I ran away over twenty years ago. Back when I felt I had little appreciation or respect from the community - the culture - I was fleeing.

Would this trip back at least give me some sense of social worth like the Aztec had for revered Spondylus? Would I be, if not prized, at least useful, rather than a nuisance, to my friend? Time to send in the clown . . . and the chickens.

Until the infamous chicken day I was doing pretty well for my friend, being a listening ear, cooking, cleaning, hauling, and helping her manage a farm while she tried to put out the out-of-control, deadly serious wildfires of absurdity that sprang up in her life. Then came the morning of the most stressful day of my friend’s life. While she was up early getting dressed and mentally and emotionally prepared, I had one job. Just one. ONE. Feed the fancy-feathered chickens. I have a tangled history with chickens that’s too complicated to go into here, but if there ARE two kinds of people in the world there are chicken people and not. I’m not. I opened the fence, put out water, put out food, and smiled with relief as I opened their hatch door and down they goof-marched to their bowls. That’s when I noticed that I had failed to shut the gate behind me. Oh goddess. Before I could get to it, one of the high-falutin’ tawny ones looked at me, looked at the open gate, and then looked back at me – right into the depths of my neurotic soul - and set out to prove just how incapable I am. Do you recall the opening scene of Planes Trains and Automobiles where Steve Martin is desperately hailing a cab in busy Chicago and just as one pulls up he catches the eyes of cameo-appearing Kevin Bacon, also desperately hailing across multiple lanes of jammed traffic? I was Steve. The chicken was Kevin. You know who got the cab. The game was ON!

My friend's pic of the hen I call "Bacon"

Out that daughter-of-a-dinosaur-bitch ran into the wilds of the cedar trees and the high grass that was a cornucopia of spring-ready ticks. Out I stumbled, smartly shutting the gate behind me! Thus began my jester-like, thirty minutes of buffoonery. After about ten minutes of chasing her in loops around the cedar trunks with my legs getting stuck in old, rotting hay bales (Where are snow shoes when you need them?) I got her back to running around the fenced pen. But, every time, as soon as I’d have that escapee chicken cornered she’d duck and zoom the other way . . . over and over and over. All her cohorts were shriek-clucking in hyper-empathetic alarm and I prayed my stressed-out friend couldn’t hear her prized hens through the walls of the house. The master bed and bath were adjacent to this human -vs- bird battlefield. Around and around that damn fence we went, with me almost getting her coaxed back through the gate multiple times only to have her duck away and dodge me at the last second or, worse, to have one of her fancy-pants sisters begin to run out and join her in her newly found freedom. At one point, as I was perched on top of a rotting hay bale with my shirt off and extended over my head like a net and the chicken thinking about running into my Karate-Kid-Fighting-Crane-like trap, I realized that my friend’s bedroom window was RIGHT THERE. I know this is funny to read now, but seriously, in that seemingly endless thirty minutes I was a nervous, sweat-covered mess . . . so worried that my friend would discover my antics mid-fiasco and have to come out and fix it herself which was the abso-flippin’-lutely last thing she needed to deal with that particular morning. I decided then that if it came down to getting my friend’s help or losing that damn chicken, the chicken would be fox food - no contest. I decided to give it one last Bowman-girl-go. Shirtless, I fucking dove all-out horizontal, arms outstretched. Picture Nicholas Cage in some cheesy shoot-out scene, flying through the air slow-mo, firing pistols from both hands, grimacing with concentration. I grabbed that bird bare-handed as I belly-flop landed with a non-cinematic “whump” and, with a brief glance to the window to be sure I wasn’t being seen, slam-dunked that bird bitch back over the fence where she landed amid her now horrified sisters and, presumably, began to ask herself existential questions like “Why DID I cross the fence?”

My friend got back from the big, stressful morning and said nothing about the chickens so she must not have born witness to my ineptitude. I knew she’d wonder why a certain hen stopped laying for a while but I kept my big mouth closed that whole day about it, feeling relief at not having made the day worse even if it was just fool’s luck. But then, after supper, as my bud and I caught up on the serious business of the day, I confessed and told her the chicken story. When I did, something miraculous happened. Something I hadn’t heard in years. My old childhood friend laughed. Not just a polite, amused laugh, but a real-deal guffaw. But then it happened. Her sweet kiddo overheard our laughter and confronted us, clearly taken-aback and hurt. How, she wanted to know, could we possibly sit there laughing while her life was falling apart? My heart sunk. I failed at the most important thing . . . protecting her child. That’s when I heard my friend who is the most natural and wise of mothers calmly explain that in order to get through rough times like this that sharing laughter is, like recognizing beauty, a necessity if one is to get through it intact. Humor is part of resilience. Humor is resistance to despair. To my utter relief, her young but smart teen got it and in the coming days even shared in some of our laughs that we stopped trying to suppress by “clamming up”.

It’s a good thing my friend and I stopped trying to tamp down our emotions, like so many of us were forced to do in childhood, during those weeks of crisis management. Not only did we sometimes need to weep openly and without restraint but we also sure needed those occasional laughs. What, I wonder, would have happened to our souls sans humor those couple weeks when we were met with figurative roadblock after roadblock when trying to get our social systems to help us and her husband to no avail? We sure needed it when we had to suddenly go Thelma and Louise and cross the state line into a county that looked and felt like a movie set: Andy Griffith’s Mayberry but with the cast of The Dukes of Hazard in a Zombie Apocalypse flick! I’m telling ya, you can’t make this stuff up.

That trip back to my dear friend in the Shenandoah Valley, the place of all my old wounds, was a real gift of healing and self-forgiveness for me. I went to help a friend but she ended up helping me. When it came time to tearfully hug my friend goodbye and fly back to Mexico she made me promise something: to never, ever again believe that old story of myself as just a nuisance and selfish. I realized that it wasn’t that I did or said the right things for my friend in need. Really, there were no right things to say or do. My friend was simply comforted and reminded of how worthy of love she is (and, oh, how she IS!) just by my mere willingness to climb into and sit with her in the dark hole she was stuck in. Instead of believing the worn-out story that my mere existence is a nuisance I discovered that instead just my presence can be a blessing. And the purple-lipped rock oysters have taught me that clamming-up may be beneficial if you’re a shellfish trying not to be served for lunch, but for a human being we are best served by feeling safe and loved enough as we are . . . safe enough to open our shells and let our tender selves feel and respond to the world in all our naked vulnerability

My incredible window seat view of San Carlos, Sonora.

So, there I was, back on the plane, feeling more emotionally mature. Like my past, fearful self was becoming integrated with my current, more self-assured self. I realized that like those prized, intricately-carved Spondylus pieces were to the Aztecs, I was perhaps becoming a prized friend and partner. One who by nature is, it turns out, not just a self-centered clown but also a generous and at times even wise woman. Someone with some social integrity. Someone who should open her mouth to speak the deeper truths. Damn, somewhere above Texas I actually think I resurrected my true self and forgave my family and my old-Southern culture for my past "shellfish"ness! So I sat back in my window seat, still deeply concerned for my friend certainly, but also feeling newly intact . . . until I counted that same 80% of window seaters with their window shades pulled down, turning away from the should-be-jaw-dropping view of the only planet we have during goddess Ēostre’s*** fertile, springtime renewal. The planet we all came out of and will go back into - the one that gives us life. And I began to stew and simmer all the way across the continent in an angry, hot soup of judgement. That’s when the toddler behind me began to screech and kick and I wanted to turn over my shoulder and yell at them like my dad did to me to stop that crying! Then, I heard another, wiser, internal voice whisper, “Much still to learn, Grasshopper”.

. . . to be continued . . . .

* has this to say about another possible PreColumbian use of Spondylus during the months they become toxic: “Spondylus was known as the "Food of the Gods", according to a Quechua myth recorded in the 17th century. Some debate exists among scholars as to whether this meant that the gods consumed spondylus shells, or the flesh of the animal. American archaeologist Mary Glowacki (2005) makes an interesting argument that the effects of eating spondylus shell meat out of season may have made them an essential part of religious ceremonies.

Between the months of April and September, the flesh of spondylus is toxic to humans, a seasonal toxicity recognized in most shellfish called Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). PSP is caused by toxic algae or dinoflagellates consumed by shellfish during those months, and typically it is at its most toxic following the appearance of the algae bloom known as the "red tide". Red tides are associated with El Niño oscillations, themselves associated with catastrophic storms.

The symptoms of PSP include sensory distortions, euphoria, loss of muscular control, and paralysis, and, in the most severe cases, death. Glowacki suggests that purposefully eating spondylus during the wrong months may well have effected a hallucinogenic experience associated with shamanism, as an alternative to other forms of hallucinogens such as cocaine.”

** By Harry Grange - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

***According to my favorite Tucson Book and Music re-sale shop, Bookmans: “It is believed that Easter got its name from the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Ostara, also known as Ēostre. Ostara is oft compared to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, the goddess of Fertility. Ēostre is the goddess of the dawn, spring, fertility, and rebirth. As the story goes, Ēostre had once saved a bird from the winter cold. The bird’s wings had frozen and could not fly away. So she changed the bird into a rabbit, and since the rabbit was once a bird, it could lay eggs. Hence the Easter Bunny and egg connection.

Modern thought says that Ēostre is more mythical than magical and invented from the festival of Ostara. It may possible since most gods and heroes of old stem from oral stories. Stories of Ēostre are older than expected, and she almost became a forgotten goddess. Due to neo-pagan religions, the festive holiday in the spring, and the writings and media that feature her, Ēostre is becoming popular again.”

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4 commenti

05 lug 2023

Incredible writings from deep down inside your beautiful soul. Thank you Jo xx

your friend,

Jen Jungmann

Mi piace

26 giu 2023

Gracias por compartir está historia.

Mi piace

Tina Switzer
Tina Switzer
21 giu 2023

Such beautiful, honest and raw reflections my dear friend!

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Chica Jo
Chica Jo
21 giu 2023
Risposta a

Thank you Tina! It is incredibly meaningful to have you as a thoughtful reader.

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