Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pearls


I’m pretty much o.k. with looking my age, whatever that means. I don’t dye my hair or have bits of my anatomy surgically lifted, but I do try, whenever possible, to avoid decking myself out in the emblems of past eras, such as bubble hairdos, pillbox hats, and cadaverously pale lipstick.

In the mid-twentieth century, as we girls reached puberty we were given a series of objects that marked our progress towards womanhood: first pair of heels, first girdle, first razor, first strand of pearls. The pearls—real, cultured, or artificial-- were usually gifts from parents or grandparents, a single strand to encircle our youthful necks on special occasions.

My generation didn’t get much use out of our pearls. By the mid-sixties, “serious” jewelry had given way to ethnic and artisanal adornments. We wore chandelier-like earrings that hung down to our clavicles, paper mache bracelets, and bizarre beads and amulets in lieu of pearls.

I still have my pearls. They sleep in a box, wrapped like mummies in a lace doily crocheted by my father’s mother. Sometimes I take them out and look at them. Almost certainly man-made, the pearls are a mellow ivory color, and they have kept their looks over the decades, without peeling or losing their luster. They feel heavy in my hand and, on the rare occasions when I put them on, pleasantly cool on my skin.

I like pearls. They go with everything. They are almost alive, “breathing” air and moisture and changing color with the years and the wearer’s chemistry. The better kind of artificial pearls get their luster from a concoction of fish scales slathered on a glass sphere, so they react to their environment in much the same way as their oyster-made cousins.

In Colette’s novel, Chéri, the courtesan Léa wears her magnificent “rope” of rosy pearls to bed with her lover. If I lived on a desert island, I too would wear my little strand round the clock. But I live in Vermont, where, for good reason, the atmosphere is ultra casual. It’s hard to dress in fancy clothes when you’re trudging through snow drifts in winter and deep mud in spring. In the all-too-short summer, Vermonters are frantically growing veggies in their gardens, and can’t be bothered to dress up.

The Green Mountain State, however, is nothing if not accepting of quirks and fancies of all kinds. You can wear an organza shift with your rubber boots to town meeting and nobody will bat an eye, so why don’t I wear my pearls? Sheer vanity is why. I’m afraid that they might be one of those markers of bygone eras, like the teased hair of the sixties or the pillow-sized shoulder pads of the eighties, that will telegraph my elderly status before I’ve had a chance to impress my audience with how relatively non-elderly I am.

It’s vanity on the same spectrum as hair rinses and eyelid tweaks. But at least the people who undergo these procedures are exchanging something they don’t like (gray hair and droopy eyelids) for something that they like better. I, on the other hand, am denying myself something I enjoy in order to avoid looking like Queen Elizabeth.

Given what I’ve seen on TV in recent weeks, however, looking like the Queen, who wears her near-century with pride, would be infinitely preferable to looking like my fellow septuagenarian, the man with the orange face.

Senior prom, 1962

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Ten Thousand Steps


For years we have heard that taking ten thousand steps every day will make you healthier. And you don't need special clothing, footwear, or equipment. You can do your walking barefoot or in three-inch heels, in shorts or bespoke suits, up a mountain or in your kitchen. The principle has a pleasing Japanese-style simplicity about it, like those exquisite, barely-there flower arrangements. If I bring up Japan, it's because that is where the 10,000-step movement began.

It's a part of my "shadow self" that I can't seem to shake, the tendency to glom onto goals, regardless of their worth. Ten thousand steps--is there a number more absolute, majestic and compelling than that slender digit trailing four plump zeroes? Who could resist it? Not I.

But for a long time I couldn't find a pedometer (did I mention that you need a pedometer?) that counted steps accurately. Then recently I heard about a new generation of battery-powered gizmos that were supposed to do the job. I bought one, measured my stride as instructed, told it my height and weight, and clipped it to my waistband. Then I took Bisou for a walk.

I had no idea what I would find when I checked the count at bedtime. Would the day's harvest yield five hundred or five thousand steps? As it turned out, it was the latter. Not bad, for a baseline, but I was only halfway to my goal.

For the next couple of days I took Bisou for longer walks. In the evening, while watching TV, I set a kitchen timer for twenty-five minute periods, and each time it rang I got up and walked three times around the room. Every night the number on my pedometer grew. On Friday, it showed eight thousand steps.  On Saturday, I did it again.

On Sunday, I couldn't get out of bed.

On Monday, I was hobbling stiff-kneed around the kitchen when I heard a story on NPR that was sent to me personally by the universe. It turns out that the goal of 10,000 steps is not based on any kind of scientific evidence. It was promulgated in Japan decades ago by a pedometer manufacturer who wanted to sell more pedometers.

Now, a study of 17,000 women of a certain age shows that walking a mere 4,400 steps a day had a beneficial effect on the women's longevity. Some ambitious participants walked more, but after 7,500 steps there were no additional effects on longevity (possibly because their painful knees drove them to suicide).

Since hearing that story, I have abandoned my obsession with the 10,000 steps. I am not abandoning my pedometer, however, even though the numbers 4,400 or even 7,500 don’t have the same appeal. I have settled for a measly five thousand steps a day. My knees are already thanking me.

And when the next fitness craze hits, whether it be daily push-ups, jumping jacks, or handstands, I will strive to keep in mind the common sense views of my mother, who lived into her nineties without the aid of canes, walkers, joint replacements, or NSAIDs. She walked every day, making circuits inside the house when the weather was bad, but only for as long as she enjoyed it. 

She would have laughed at my pedometer. "Why do you need a little machine," I can hear her saying, "to tell you when you've had enough?"




Wednesday, June 5, 2019

My Fox Fantasy


This spring I've been running a fox restaurant in the backyard. I feed the birds, who drop the seeds that feed the squirrels, who are then eaten by my fox.  Given his dedication to hunting, I assume he's a male, working hard to feed his wife and children.

It is not easy to watch Nature doing its red-in-tooth-and-claw thing right outside my door. The squirrels, grown fat on a diet of oil-rich sunflower seeds and berry-studded suet, make a slow-moving prey for the fox, and a calorie-rich dinner for his family. In the space of three days last week I saw him kill two squirrels and, despite my mixed feelings about the squirrels, I felt sorry as I watched them perish in the fox's narrow jaws.

Until, that is, I saw him limping as he carried off the body. Then I felt sorry for the fox.

He's a good-looking red fox with a luxurious white-tipped tail and black-stockinged legs. What caused his lameness? Was he hit by a car, or bitten by a squirrel? Is his foot dislocated, infected, or what? Lame or not, he trots across our yard as gracefully as Fred Astaire.

I wish I could shoot him with a tranquilizing dart and take him to the vet, but my little dog, Bisou, harbors no such kind feelings. To her, the fox's presence in our yard is an outrage, and she barks explosively every time she sees him run past. She barks explosively even when the fox is not in the yard, putting her nose on the ground and sniffing until I drag her back inside. Yesterday I bent down to investigate a spot that she was glued to, and found two clumps of squirrel fur.

I think about the fox all the time. Looking out the window, I ignore the two kinds of finches, the three kinds of woodpeckers, and even the orioles that a month ago sent me into ecstasies. All I want to see is the fox.

To tell the truth, what I really want is to tame the fox. I want to offer him bits of Bisou's kibble so he'll slowly get used to me and come close enough to let me pet him. And after weeks of patience and perseverance, one day--maybe in the fall, when the leaves are turning and the evenings grow chilly--he will follow me into the house and curl up on the hearth.

This is of course utterly insane, and an inappropriate fantasy for a grown woman. But it's just one in my long list of wildlife fantasies, such as the one about the chipmunks that come to drink at my birdbath, so neat and trim that they look as if they've been drawn with a calligraphy pen. How, I wonder, does one tame a chipmunk? One frigid night in the garage I caught a glimpse of an ermine in its bright, white winter coat. As he vanished under the car I was already taking stock of my pantry to see what I could offer him (canned salmon? sardines?) to get him to stick around.

I've been this way for as long as I can remember, and I doubt that I'll ever change. The lonely only child surrounded by a tribe of ever-attentive adults still lives inside me, and craves the presence of a fellow creature who neither praises, corrects, nor instructs, and whose wordless companionship somehow allows me to be fully myself.

So what am I going to do about the fox? Even if by some miracle he were to follow me into the house, he would give Bisou and the cat Telemann, not to mention my spouse, heart attacks. Therefore, I've downgraded to a humbler fantasy, in which the fox and I sit together on the grass and quietly watch a beetle climb up a twig, while the scratchy song of the cicadas thrums in our ears. I can't think of a more perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.






Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Only A Woman

When she was seven, the future Saint Teresa ran away with her brother to seek martyrdom among the Moors in Africa. An uncle found them outside the city walls of Avila and dragged them home. Later, as a Carmelite nun, she crisscrossed Spain on muleback, cleaning up corrupt convents, founding new ones, and doing battle against resistant clerics. And all the while she was writing masterpieces of literature that endure to this day, making friends with that other great mystic and writer, Saint John of the Cross, and having ecstatic visions of God.

Although she'd been dead for four centuries, Teresa's power radiated all the way through the chalk dust in our classrooms and the ink stains in our uniforms."She was a mystic, a writer, a reformer, a theologian, and a doctor of the Church," the teacher told us "even though she was ONLY A WOMAN!"

For us, Teresa was a no-nonsense saint, grown-up and bold, with none of the sickly prettiness of the little virgin martyrs (Lucy, Agnes, Margaret, Cecilia, etc.) whose main merit seemed to consist in their refusal to have sex. In the 1950s, a decade that revered domesticity, and in a culture where virginity, followed by marriage and motherhood, were practically the only options for women, Saint Teresa showed us a different picture of how to be a woman: brave, intelligent, determined, a leader of women and men.

If Teresa of Avila had been the only model held up for our admiration, all would have been well. But in counterpoint to the bold image of the saint we were offered a list of tamer, more "feminine" virtues: we were urged to be patient and humble, and to always think of others before ourselves. Unquestioning obedience was at the top of the list, as was the strictest chastity. "When you go to bed at night," I remember one of my German nuns advising us, "do not let your hands wander all over your body." (Years later, my college roommate said I was the only person she knew who fell asleep with her arms straight at her side, like a corpse in a casket.)

But it was that trio--humility, selflessness, and obedience--that was the most effective at quashing our girlish spirits. How could we nine- and ten-year-olds reconcile those ego-stifling virtues with the drive and assertiveness that Saint Teresa must have possessed in order to achieve all that she did?
It was a dilemma that we were too young to solve, and it caused us much confusion and uncertainty.

It was not altogether bad to have our vision of the indomitable aspects of Saint Teresa's character tempered with the milder virtues. But I shudder to imagine what life would have been like for us girls without the image of the great Saint fighting for justice, writing books, founding convents and monasteries. Years before we heard of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem we had Saint Teresa of Avila, in her sandals and brown habit, riding her mule in all weathers, showing us what a woman could be.






Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Of Birds And Lilies

"Look at the birds of the air," Father Molloy intoned in his Irish brogue. "They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Lord God feeds them." Then he then went on about lilies and King Solomon, and when he had finished reciting he twinkled his blue eyes and said "Class, I want you to memorize this passage by tomorrow." The blood froze in my veins.

At home that evening I got out the New Testament and my paperback Spanish-English dictionary and went to work. I had no idea what the passage was about. I didn't know the meaning of sow, reap, gather, or barns. Then came the part about the lilies, which neither toil nor spin, whatever that was, but even Solomon was not arrayed like one of them. Arrayed--was it a good or a bad thing not to be arrayed like a lily?

And then a few lines further down Jesus said, "Therefore, do not worry..." (Matthew 6:26-34)

How could I not worry, when I had to memorize that long passage by tomorrow and I didn't know most of the words in it? I looked up sow, and reap, and gather. But by the time I got to barns I was confused. I had seen plenty of sowing and reaping in my grandparents' farm in Catalonia, but as far as I knew, the birds of the air were a menace around harvest time. They did not wait for the Lord God to feed them, but helped themselves boldly to the grain.

I ground my teeth and soldiered on, looking up word after word, but when I put them all together, the passage still didn't make sense. And here it was, almost bedtime, and I hadn't even begun to memorize.

"Therefore, do not worry..."

At fourteen, newly arrived in the U.S. and possessed only of the few crumbs of English I'd acquired from a German teacher during my three years in Quito, I worried all the time. I was the first-ever foreign student in a Catholic high school in Birmingham, Alabama, long before the days when English as a second language became an academic subject. I suspect that nobody knew what to do with me.

For my part, my all-consuming goal was to blend in so I could catch my breath and figure out, without letting anyone notice my ignorance, things I'd never encountered before, like homerooms and assemblies and rallies and football games, and to acquire enough English to survive.

My efforts at camouflage must have worked, because from day one my teachers seemed to assume that I was no different from my classmates. I'm sure that if I'd asked for help it would have been given gladly, but I never asked. I believed, given the stern regimes of my schools in Barcelona and later in Quito, that any sign of weakness or ignorance would be pounced upon by the school authorities and I would be cast into the outer darkness, to spend the rest of my days cleaning bathrooms for a living.

If I had only known how comparatively lenient and indulgent American educators were, I would have relaxed, but I didn't know, so I anxiously continued to mask my deficiencies. Arriving home in the afternoon, after a day of straining with every fiber to understand what was going on in class, I would retire to bed with a headache. Later I would get up and, dictionary in hand, try to do my homework.

But on the night of my encounter with the birds and the lilies, I finally realized that the dictionary was in fact hampering my efforts to understand. It was slowing me down, interrupting the flow of ideas so that I was missing the gist of the passage. Besides, there were just too many words I didn't know. It was impossible to look them all up, let alone remember them. I would simply have to figure out the meanings from the context.

With a sigh, I put the dictionary away and never opened it again. Somehow I winged it, lexicon-less, through the rest of school. At college graduation, my husband-to-be presented me with a hardcover Merriam-Webster Collegiate, but by then I hardly needed it.

It's been a late spring in Vermont, and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are busy making up for lost time. The words in the Matthew passage are no longer a mystery to me. But, having learned to fret early on, it's those other words of Jesus that I still struggle with, "Therefore, do not worry...."














Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Not Forest.Trees!

I am married to a man who pays attention to trees. Me, I'm a forest gazer. I stand on a mountain and take in acres of green, stretching all the way to the sea.

In reality, he can barely tell a weeping willow from a sugar maple, and my most interesting forest experience was when I got lost in the woods behind my house. What I'm saying is that my spouse (who can't see the forest for the trees) focuses on the concerns of the moment, whereas I (who can't see the trees for the forest) am forever taking the larger view.

Can you guess which of us is the more serene, contented, and at peace?

Some people are born with a Zen-like instinct for paying attention to the here and now. If I ever had this instinct, it was taken away by the evil fairies at my christening. Since childhood I have embodied that saying of Thich Nhat Hanh's: "I think; therefore, I am not here."

Where am I? I'm on the mountain, staring at the forest, scrutinizing the horizon for threatening hordes, peering among those distracting trees for signs of lions, tigers, and bears. This does not fill me with feelings of security or contentment. Although the view is occasionally neutral, most often it inspires dread: there is too much to do; where do I even start? What if there's a flood, a fire, a war?

Tired of contemplating forests and paying for it with endless hours of unnecessary worry,  I'm trying to break the habit.

As if in answer to my need, the universe, via Google, sent me this from Sir William Osler (1849-1919), revered physician and all around good guy: "Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day."

The little task at my elbow! Who could resist? I don't need to cope with a forest stretching across continents, but with a single tree, perhaps a seedling, in need of water and light. Even I can manage that! And in the process, I can take in Sister Tree in all her uniqueness--the feel of the bark, the angle of the branches, the way the leaves move in the breeze--and let that be sufficient for the day.