“Return from the Borderlands” by Deb Hansen
It was late March in El Paso. In just a few weeks I would be taking the train home to northern Michigan. I’d spent the winter living and working as a volunteer at one of a series of shelters for refugees from Latin America. The virus hadn’t yet established much of a presence yet at the border. We knew it was coming, but it was still distant enough to make taking it seriously difficult. Meanwhile, it was wreaking havoc in my home state of Michigan.
Our director had begun to stop by daily for a time to talk to us about our plans. Would we stay or leave? Four of us five volunteers at our house were elders and considered high risk. The choice was ours. He wanted to keep us thinking things through. Denial, I discovered in myself and the others, had many layers. It was all disorienting. Every day, the situation became more real and troubling. I still find myself continuing to peel back more and more layers.
One evening, I started having cold symptoms and sat apart from the other volunteers when the director stopped by again. I was asked to put on a mask and spend a few nights in isolation at a hotel. From there, I took up residence at our administrative house in an apartment that would be used for volunteers who got sick, but didn’t need to be hospitalized. It was a simple cold. I felt better in just a few days, but was not allowed to return to my responsibilities at the shelter.
I made lists of foods, supplies, and missing items for the 3-bedroom apartment I was staying at, to make sure it would be ready and comfortable. I did research on how the space could be adequately sanitized after volunteers had recovered and left. I would go for a walk in the evening on streets strangely vacant with clouds of dust blowing wildly down them.
On the train, I found Amtrak taking excellent precautions. Staff outnumbered us passengers. There were only around 40 of us at any given time. I wore my mask to a from the dining car and occasionally sat for a short time in the observation car. A southbound train broke down during the night, blocking our way. I was put me up in a Chicago hotel because I’d missed my connection.
I got off the train in Kalamazoo. The depot was closed. The streets were almost empty. It felt eerie, unreal. I had difficulty finding a taxi to take me to the airport to pick up my rental car for the last leg of the journey. Just when I was about to give up hope, one appeared. The long drive north was uneventful.
The following day, I needed to return the car at the regional airport just five miles away. The airport transportation service wasn’t running. Disoriented, I hesitated to phone a friend on short notice. It would take at least an hour out of their day. It was early in the season and hardly anyone was around to ask for a ride. Was it appropriate to even ask for a ride given the pandemic lockdown? I finally ran into someone I knew. He agreed, but shortly after his wife dropped by to tell me that he had an underlying condition. She was advising him against doing me the favor, considering the circumstances. I heard myself telling her I understood. I did, of course, but inside, my stomach clutched. My thoughts raced to other scenarios. Me getting sick with no one to help. This was definitely new terrain to navigate. I ended up driving to the airport and walking all the way home.
The mayor of one of our communities where I used to live scolded me on Facebook for traveling during a pandemic and informed me several times that I needed to isolate myself for the next few weeks. The area where I live is a summer vacation paradise. A petition was being circulated to request action from the Governor that would require people with summer homes to delay their return so our smaller hospitals would not be overwhelmed. While I understood the concern, after the past months of offering hospitality at the border, it was unsettling to be encouraged to see others as dangerous and unwelcome. Friends offered to go grocery shopping for me and do errands during my time in isolation.
One of the first things I did was to call a dear friend who at age 92 was in assisted living downstate. “When are you coming to see me?” were the first words out of her mouth. My throat closed. Soon after, I got word that Covid was now in her complex. Dread. The following day she was taken to hospital with pneumonia. Then we got word that she had tested positive for the virus. We were able to make appointments to “visit” her via zoom. She was spared the worst symptoms and died peacefully, but without the people who loved her at her bedside. That haunts me, still. In May, a dear cousin and her husband were hospitalized with the virus. He didn’t survive. My cousin, months later is still on oxygen with many complications. The virus is a trickster. I know entire families who have had mild cases of Covid with no apparent lasting effects. A friend’s mother-in-law recovered at age 104! An American friend who lives in Mexico is hoping to be discharged from the hospital soon at age 96.
As I was required to slow down, I realized that I had still been doing a lot of running around. I could go a month on a tank of gas. I began to paint again after a hiatus of many years. I signed up for zoom summits. I did a directed retreat at home. The weather in northern Michigan was still dreary. I was enjoying the quiet and appreciating the time to reflect on my journey to El Paso. Clearly, this opportunity indicated my privilege as so many others were putting themselves in harm’s way as essential workers.
Foraging was not something I began with a plan, an intention or an idea. Maybe the impulse came from being again in a familiar landscape after a winter spent in the desert and the need to ground myself in the seasons and cycles of life. One day, driving on woodland roads, blankets of wild leeks enticed me to stop, gathering no more than a leaf or two from any plant and avoiding digging up the bulb. The pesto I made from them was out of this world, no garlic was needed.
Inspired by a friend’s Facebook post on the merits of violet syrup, I remembered the flowers were blooming in profusion now just across the road. In just a few minutes, I’d picked enough to make my first batch. The rich purple color was healing to behold. I learned that spruce tips could be harvested sparingly and added to salads. They were tender and had a surprising lemony flavor. In summer there were pin cherries. In the fall, there were apples from former homesteads.
This foraging has meant something to me that I still cannot find adequate words to express. Somewhere, I was ingesting the spirit of the land I love. It felt like a sacrament. For the first time, I was developing a relationship with plants. I’ve prepared all of my meals, except for three. To wash, chop, stir, spoon offered a surety that was comforting and structured my days as winds of change swept through the world.
I continue to reflect on the life-changing experience and mutual blessing of life in the borderlands. In this culture of death, violence, and exploitation, I feel more grateful than ever for healthy cultures and traditions, shelter, relationship, food prepared with human hands, beauty, and the generosity and gentleness of El Paso. A friend says the virus is the vaccine for climate breakdown. Stephen Jenkinson asserts that “the thing that was interrupted, had no business continuing.” He calls Covid a god. “And the god’s in the house. And the god’s having god’s way as god tends to do. And our obligation is to exercise a kind of radical hospitality to this anarchic presence and to learn how to be undone by [it].”