Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Dame Julian and I

Across the seven centuries that separate us, I hear her voice whispering to me. The anchoress Dame Julian of Norwich and I have so much in common these days that we are practically twins. Like me, she lived in a time of plague. Like me, she isolated herself in a small space, though her cell, or anchor hold, which was attached to the church of Saint Julian, was a lot smaller than my cottage in the retirement community where I reside.

Her cell, I am told, had three windows. One gave into the church, so she could follow the Mass and take communion. Another opened into the street, and through it she would speak to the people who came to her for advice. The third window was the one through which her followers would hand her food and take away her wastes.

I too have windows in my cottage. Seven centuries have seen major improvements in sanitation, so waste disposal is not an issue. But my food is delivered at my door every evening at 5:30, and although people don’t come to me for advice, friends do come and sit on my porch, where we mumble at each other through our masks. My cottage is not attached to a church, but its back windows look out into a cathedral of trees, which change their vestments with the season, and where choirs of birds sing their own versions of Gregorian chant.

Like me, Dame J was a writer. She was the first woman to write a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. I am not even the first woman to write a blog, but I nevertheless feel a strong sense of kinship with her, and as I sit tapping at my laptop I can practically hear the scritch scratch of her goose quill on parchment.

Also, like me, she had a cat! (Unlike me she didn’t have a husband or a dog in her anchor hold, but I’m focusing on similarities here.) When the spirit moves him, Telemann jumps onto my keyboard and edits my writing. I wonder if Dame Julian’s cat ever stepped on her work before the ink was dry, and left little flower-shaped prints all over her manuscript?

Julian tells us that in one of her visions God showed her a hazelnut. “What may this be?” she asked. And He answered, “It is all that is made.” I don’t quite know what this means, but she tells us what it meant to her: “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

Julian is so reassuring! (She’s also the originator of that COVID-era mantra, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”) I would like to find a hazelnut to meditate on, but the closest I can get to one around here would be an acorn, and right now the chipmunks and squirrels have eaten every last one. But as soon as the oaks drop their next crop in September, I will fill a little bowl with acorns to keep on my writing table, next to my laptop and my cat.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

An Herb For Our Time

Three years ago, on Mother’s Day, I received a terracotta planter filled with annuals in bloom. In the fall, after the first frost, I ripped out the dead plants and stowed the pot in the garage. One January morning, as I got into the car, I noticed a few green shoots peeking out of the pot, stretching with all their might towards the pallid light that seeped through the narrow window of the automatic door. I sympathized with them but didn’t think they had much hope—surely the next cold snap, let alone two more months of darkness, would do them in.

But the little sprouts persevered. Their leggy stems got longer, and a few more leaves appeared, still reaching desperately towards the window. In the spring, when I put it outside, the plant breathed a sigh of relief, plumed its feathers, and filled the pot with new shoots. It celebrated the solstice by bursting into sprays of lavender-colored blooms. The bees and the butterflies found it, and were well pleased.

When a friend told me that the plant was hyssop, I was astonished. Until then, the only mention of hyssop I’d come across was in church, during Mass. “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor” the priest would intone, which the translation in my missal rendered as “Sprinkle me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be cleansed.” Now the herb used by the Jews for millennia and later adopted by Christianity was growing in my pot, its leaves pungent and anise-scented, its flowers a bonanza to flying things.

My hyssop has survived two winters in the garage. This summer I am treating it with special reverence, watching out for its needs and wants. I have offered it an extra helping of potting soil, and I am alert to the slightest droop of its arrow-shaped leaves, which tend to sag in the heat. But the plant is as grateful as it is demanding. It may look in extremis in the afternoon, but it reacts to my evening drenching with an optimistic, upward thrust of its entire being. It is as resilient as I would like to be.

It's still high summer but, to my apprehensive eye, the days are noticeably shorter. The killing frost is a mere couple of months away.  When that comes, I will stow away the porch chairs and drag the big pot, with its cropped head of hyssop, back into the shadows of the garage--and I will retreat indoors, to the cat, the afghan, and the fireplace.

From all indications the coming winter will be long and dark. Unlike in past years, when I mostly ignored the hibernating hyssop, this time I will keep an anxious eye on it, to see if it is still putting out green shoots, and still stretching towards the light.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Mystery of the Unborn Calf

I was a backward child, wandering dreamily in a world filled with mysteries and miracles. At ten, even as my breasts were starting to develop, my mother had to sit me down and inform me that it was  parents who gave their children gifts on the feast of the Epiphany--not the Magi following the star on their camels. Prior to her revelation, I had felt no need to question the story. I had been taught that my guardian angel hovered over my right shoulder as I went about my day, and the Virgin Mary personally kept vigil over my bed at night, so why not flying camels and wandering stars? 

One day a couple of years later, informed by the maid who made my bed that overnight I had transitioned from niña to mujer, my mother called me into her room and handed me a box of sanitary napkins and a belt.

“What’s all this?” I asked, oblivious to the events of the night.

She explained the basics. Thinking that menstruation was an annoying but temporary manifestation of adolescence, like acne, I asked her when it would stop. My mother smiled. “Not until you are very old,” she said.

Along with the supplies, she handed me a Spanish translation of a booklet published by Modess. It had line drawings of cool-looking American girls in circle skirts and saddle shoes, and, less interesting, sketches of the organs that menstrual blood came from. The booklet did not explain what the bleeding was for, and it never occurred to me that it had anything to do with babies, much less with men. I did notice that some pages seemed to have been cut out of the booklet, but I didn’t ask.

Now that I would have to carry those bulky pads around with me, my mother decided that I needed a purse. We were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply walk into a store and buy one. Like furniture and clothing, purses had to be made to order. She took me to the man who made things out of leather, and they had a conversation about the design of the purse while I stood on one foot and then the other, daydreaming. They decided on one in the shape of a flattened flower pot.

As they discussed the kind of leather--cow, pig, alligator?-- to be used, the man said something that startled me out of my trance. “I have something that would be perfect for the child,” he said, spreading a skin on the counter. It was covered in short, fine, honey-colored fur. He ran his fingers over it and smiled at my mother. “It is unborn calf. Feel how soft…”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “That is impossible. How can you make a purse out of a calf that is not born, that doesn’t exist?”

“Hush!” my mother said.

"No, really," I persisted. "It's absurd!"

My mother gave the man a deposit for the purse and hustled me out of the store. At home she explained that before birth calves grew for several months inside mother cows, just as human babies grew inside their mothers. Again, she made no mention of bulls or men, and again I didn’t ask. After all, hadn’t Our Lord been "conceived of the Holy Spirit"? But that was not the main issue on my mind.

“It must hurt a lot when the baby comes out!” 

“Yes, of course,” my mother said. “Maybe that is why mothers love their children so much.”

I remember feeling skeptical about this. Why would one love something because it hurt? But of course many other painful things were supposed to be good or even holy--fasting before communion, giving one’s allowance to the poor, not to mention Our Lord’s death on the cross—so the pain of childbirth fit right in with my worldview.

Although I am sorry that I embarrassed my mother and the leather man that day, I nevertheless recall my preadolescent self with tolerance. My lack of curiosity about sex was not evidence of an impoverished mind. On the contrary, my mind was already so full of unfathomable things that there was no room for thinking about mundane stuff like where babies came from. Figuring out what  impelled Saint Eulalia at age thirteen to confront the Roman governor of Barcelona, an avid persecutor of Christians, who then proceeded to torture and kill her, was more engrossing than wondering how that calf got into the cow in the first place.

I wore the calf-skin purse for a long time, until the zipper broke. Another thing that I neglected to wonder about during those years is what had to happen to the cow in order for her unborn calf to be made into a purse. I regret that I came late to an awareness of the suffering of animals, but I am making up for it now.

Sunday, July 19, 2020


This morning in the woods, Bisou treed a raccoon. He was almost her size, and cursing loudly, and it took me a while to get her away from him. Who knew that in her genteel DNA there lurked some coonhound genes?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


The hermit thrush alone is a good reason to live in Vermont.  All by himself, this little brown bird with the speckled breast makes up for the cold, dark winters, the messy mud seasons, and the spotty wi-fi coverage.

He comes by his name honestly. He declines to visit feeders, but stays hidden in the woods where, during the nesting season, he decants a pure, cool, silvery rill of sound. I live too much in my head to notice a lot of what Nature, like a street vendor setting out her wares, puts out for my delight. I can pass a lilac in full splendor with barely a glance, but the song of the hermit thrush stops me in my tracks. When he sings, I have to stand and hear him to the end, or I would feel like I was walking out in the middle of a recital.

Although he shies from applause, there is nothing timid or self deprecating about his performance: he sings with the aplomb of a seasoned performer. I wonder what a young hermit’s first song is like--is the timing off, are there false notes, or does it emerge from him as faultless and elegant as that of his father in his prime? As I have never heard a thrush miss a note, I suspect that they are all born musical prodigies.

This has been a good summer for hermits. The thrushes sing late into the morning, take a short break, and resume well before the sun goes down. The virus-imposed stillness in my life has made it easier for me to pay attention. At sunrise and sunset I come out of my own hermitage and listen to the invisible singer pour out his melody from the shelter of the woods.

Whenever I hear the thrush, my grasping, non-Zen self immediately pleads “don’t stop. Keep going. Encore!” And I waste the last clear perfect notes thinking that  the solstice is already behind us, and all too soon he will head south, and the woods will return to silence. But isn’t the very fact that he’s not around all year, that he shuns my feeders, that he stays hidden in his woodland cloister what makes him so precious? If I heard him in all seasons, would I still listen?

From all indications, the coming winter will be an especially dark one. Like the chipmunks, I will retreat from porch and yard and go to earth in my cottage, to sleep and snack and endure as best I can. I will be grateful for every cheeping titmouse and chickadee that visits my feeder while I await the little brown singer’s return. I will think of him scratching for insects in the leaf litter of some southern wood, but saving his song for the love season in Vermont, and for his fellow hermit, me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Guys on Monuments

Walk through almost any public park, and you’ll find yourself staring up at the hooves of rearing stone or bronze horses, mounted by guys brandishing swords or guns.  Sometimes, instead of on horses, the guys sit on thrones, holding scepters, or on chairs, grasping rolled-up parchments. Sometimes they stand looking up at the heavens, with their feet well apart and their chest stuck out, like a rooster about to crow.

Some monuments do feature women, but most often as allegorical figures, blindfolded and holding up scales, winged to celebrate a victory, or lighting the way to freedom. And, whereas the men are dressed in regular clothes, or at least in togas that fall in dignified folds, the female statues usually sport clinging draperies.

There are, of course, some monuments to real women, mostly queens--Isabella, Victoria, Catherine the Great--but they are few and far between. You can also find statues of women in Catholic churches. They are honored for their patience, obedience or, in the case of the virgin martyrs—Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Eulalia et al.--for having died horrific deaths for their faith.

But back to the guys on monuments. Whether monarchs, generals, writers, or philosophers, how many of them believed that women were full human beings, their equals in every respect? How many observed the same standards of sexual behavior that they expected of their women? How many spared their wives the ordeal of too-frequent childbearing? How many gave their daughters the same education as their sons, and paid their housemaids the same salary as their footmen?

Yes, I know. They were “men of their times,” and it’s unfair to expect a nineteenth-century general to be a feminist. But lately, being “of their times” with regard to people of color has not kept Columbus, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee on their plinths.

So I’m thinking, what would happen to the planet’s parks, plazas, piazzas, agoras, and government buildings if women decided that it was time to take down the statues of men who believed themselves the superior sex? There would be a lot of empty columns and pedestals. And when the rubble was cleared away, what would go in their place?

Perhaps we could put up some statues of actual women--the writers, artists, thinkers, and social reformers that history has ignored. I would keep those heart-breaking monuments to the unknown soldier--the innocent, likely unwilling cannon fodder of past wars. But alongside them I would like to see monuments to the anonymous women who have died in childbirth, the flotsam and jetsam of our species’ drive for survival.

Still, I’m not fond of following in the old pattern of statuary that exalts the one above the many. I would like to see those newly cleared spaces made into gardens, and not just decorative parterres and flower beds, but fruit orchards, berry patches, and vegetable plots. Tended by the citizenry for the citizenry, these would celebrate community and honor humanity far better than a marble statue of a guy on a horse.

But I am not a total iconoclast. The most beautiful or historically relevant of the old statues could be housed in museums to be visited by school children who, in the utopian future I am envisaging, would stare at them wide-eyed, and ask their teachers to explain why they were all statues of men.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Soul of a Chipmunk

There is a bird bath by our back door, and in the evening the wildlife come to drink. It’s like a Serengeti waterhole, with finches, a squirrel or two, and the chipmunks in lieu of ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. There is even a lion-equivalent, albeit behind the glass: the cat Telemann, who creeps and skulks and lashes his tail and then hurls himself against the glass, sure that this time he’ll get lucky.

The squirrels long ago figured out the nature and role of glass doors, and they pass this knowledge down to their children, who ignore the gray beast and continue with their drinking. The chipmunks are more skittish, but they’re slowly learning to ignore Telemann’s attacks.

Chipmunks, even full-grown ones, exude baby charm, with their big heads, tiny noses, and widely spaced eyes. Elegant stripes of black, cream, and gray run the length of their bodies, as if they had been carved from some richly veined wood. From my COVID cloister, I spend a lot of time watching chipmunks, and as anyone knows who has looked closely, in order to draw it, at a leaf or a sleeping cat, the attentive gaze sooner or later ensnares the heart.

The Franciscan Richard Rohr says that “we must love something deeply to know its soul.” So if looking leads to loving, and loving leads to knowledge of another’s soul, I should, with luck, before autumn come to know something of the chipmunk‘s soul. But what can a chipmunk’s soul, its essence, possibly be like? How can I, a lumbering giantess by comparison, understand the quicksilver brevity of a chipmunk?

Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him. But he was talking about understanding as an intellectual process. I’m talking about knowledge and understanding as an action of the heart, prompted by love--the kind of knowledge that Saint Francis had of the birds and of the wolf of Gubbio. The kind of understanding that Robert Burns had of the mouse whose nest he accidentally broke up with his plow. The kind of knowledge of our brother primates that rewarded Jane Goodall’s patient gaze.

As the summer unspools, I attend to the chipmunks, and wait to see what arises. The trouble is, they’re so quick that they’re usually just a blur, so to supplement my practice I looked at a couple of chipmunk videos on YouTube.

One of them showed a mother chipmunk who had made her nest inside what looked like the hollow leg of a horizontal aluminum ladder. The end was covered by a piece of metal with a hole in the middle. Her thumb-sized baby was old enough to crawl out of that hole, but, in her opinion, not old enough to spend the night outside.

She opened her mouth wide, picked him up around the middle, and tried to stuff him sideways into the hole, but he was too big. She put him down and picked him up by the hip, but he still didn’t fit. He needed to go in nose-first, the way he had come out, but she couldn’t manage it.

It was getting dark, and she was frantic to get him back inside and put him to bed.  He would have none of it. With the foolish invulnerability of the young, whenever she loosened her grip he would move away, twitching his tail and staring out at the wide, green, new world. She tried showing him by example. She went into the hole and then stuck out her head saying, see how it’s done? But he would ignore her and she would jump out and pick him up again.

I watched the four minute video in an agony of maternal empathy. Here before my eyes the eternal drama of the generations was being played out: the young struggling to get out and get away, and the old pleading, Wait! It’s not safe! You’re not ready yet!

The chipmunks outside my window move too quickly for me to grasp their soul. But that mother chipmunk was speaking my language, and her words echoed in my heart.