Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Rilke To The Rescue

Some days the most exciting thing that happens around here is that a chickadee takes a bath. A bathing chickadee is a cheerful sight. After checking carefully for owls and hawks, he wades into the birdbath and does a kind of shimmy, dipping his head, fluffing his feathers, slapping his wings, and sending up sprays of shiny droplets. 

Other than that, there’s not much going on, so it’s not surprising that many of us are treating this period of seclusion as a time set apart—a pause, a break during which the clock stops ticking. A time in detention, or in suspended animation, or in hibernation. A chunk of life held between parentheses that will melt away when things get better and we go back to normal.

 I remember my two pregnancies, when my entire being was focused on the resolution of that exceptional state, and daily events seemed not to matter as, like an accomplished meditator, I turned my focus over and over to the coming baby. But those two nine-month waits were joyous times, unlike the last nine months, during which I’ve often felt that, like Rosemary, the season was pregnant with the devil.

 Yet every day spent in this waiting is subtracted from the number of days that remain in my one and only passage through this world. I am like the bird that flies out of the darkness of nonbeing into a great lighted hall, and heads straight towards the window that is open to the darkness on the other side. My wings are beating faster; the window into the waiting night is getting closer; and the goings-on inside the hall grow more perilous by the moment. Will everything explode before I’ve gone?

 I’ve been waiting for the explosion since 2016. Surely, I’ve been saying along with millions of others, this cannot go on. It will not last. Things will go back to the imperfect but tolerable way they used to be. So let’s hold our breath and take a nap and think of something else. Something positive. Let us smile though our heart is breaking, because surely the sun will come out again, tomorrow.

 And then the universe, or the Goddess, or the Holy Spirit flung this at me, from Rilke:

 …How we squander our hours of pain.

How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration

to see if they have an end. Though they are really

seasons of us,

our winter-enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,

where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.* 

Winter is coming, in more ways than one, and it would be a waste to spend it hankering for spring.  Instead, let us find refuge in our inborn landscape, and feel at home.

 *The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1982).


Friday, October 2, 2020

My Brain, My Gut, and Sister Mary Ruth

My brain, my gut, and Sister Mary Ruth--my high school English teacher--reacted to the news of Trump's Covid infection:

Gut: Gasps, adrenaline surge, animal excitement. 

Brain: This could be the equivalent of the Clinton emails! 

Gut: But what if Trump gets really sick/dies and the Proud Boys decide that it’s the Democrats’ fault?! (Fight/flight response sets in). 

Brain: Serves Trump right that he got sick. 

Sister Mary Ruth: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Brain: This could be the road to the first woman president!

Gut: Torrents of adrenaline flood system. Heart rate up. Feeling as if could—no, must—run a mile. Not an unpleasant sensation. 

Sister Mary Ruth, warningly: Ahem! 

Brain: Whiff of shame followed by twinge of conscience. 

Gut: Pulse rate down. Desire to run mile vanishes. 

Brain: But he KNEW that Hope Hicks had the virus and he STILL attended the fund raiser. He deserves what’s coming to him! 

Sister Mary Ruth, wags finger: That’s enough, now. 

Gut: Slight feelings of fatigue, or maybe indigestion. Also strange wired sensation, despite no additional coffee. 

Brain: Would be wise to close laptop. Maybe take nap? 

Gut: Must check updates. Trump cancels call with governors! Pence says Trump “just fine”! Should sic Sister Mary Ruth on VP, for telling fibs. 

Mind: Speaking of which, what if whole thing is another one of Trump's lies? 

Gut: Heart rate up again. Throat constricted. Nap? As if. 

Sister Mary Ruth , quoting Saint Teresa: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you…all things are passing…God alone is sufficient.” 

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Four O'Clock Stare

Here is Bisou, giving me the four o'clock stare, which often begins at 3:45 and continues unabated until 4:23, when I can't stand it any longer and give in and feed her (her official dinner time is 5:00).

As parents, my spouse and I believed that consistency was important, and that giving in to unjustified demands that contradicted standing rules was misguided. We applied this same principle to our many dogs in the course of fifty years, with excellent results. Until Bisou came along.

With all my dogs before her, mostly Shepherds and Setters, I had to work hard on eye contact. It became almost a reflex, before letting a dog out the door, or feeding it, or inviting it into the car, to stop and ask for a sit, and eye contact. The sit came easily enough, but the eye contact often took years to achieve. So I was charmed and amazed when Bisou, at nine weeks, came to us with perfect built-in eye contact.

I must have showered her with praise--it's always good to praise a puppy, right?--because she kept up the eye contact, and eventually honed it into a fearsome weapon that none of us can resist. Here is an example. My spouse is a benevolent but mostly uninvolved dog owner. The dogs have always been my delight and my responsibility, but he is glad to help out when I ask. Recently, getting ready to leave for the afternoon, I prepared Bisou's dinner, stowed it in the microwave, and asked my husband to feed her around 4:30. But my plans were cut short and I got home at 2:00--and found Bisou's empty bowl on the kitchen floor.

I ran into the living room, brandishing the bowl. "What is this?" I asked my husband. "You didn't feed her already, did you?"

"Well," he answered, "she stared at me and stared at me, and I figured that you must have made a mistake when you said not to feed her until 4:30."

That lesson, among others, was not lost on Bisou, who is now in her eleventh year of polishing the power of the stare. Did I mention that she's also going a bit deaf? This means that if she's busy sniffing outside and I call and she doesn't come right away, I can't get mad at her because, poor thing, she may not have heard me. So I call again, and again (exactly what I'm NOT supposed to do) until she looks up, all innocence, and says "Oh, it's you!" and trots over and fixes me with her lustrous carnelian orbs. And I praise her for finally coming, and for making eye contact...and she stores it all in her excellent dog memory for future use.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Rara Avis

A male cardinal came to the yard yesterday, and I gasped. That plumage! That crest! That bossy look! Yet I didn’t always find cardinals gasp-worthy. At our feeder in Maryland, as many as a dozen would show up together. Here in Vermont, aside from the occasional bluebird, our birds excel more by their song than by their plumage. Thrushes and warblers dress in drab brown and beige, so as not to distract from their music. 

But now that our winters are warmer, a cardinal will sometimes decide to stick around, and the locals take photos of the flatlander bird, and post them on Facebook. If things keep going as they are, we’ll soon wake up in the mornings to the cacophony of visiting macaws. And no doubt, the first glimpse of that outrageous blue-and-gold, or red-blue-and-yellow plumage will stop us in our tracks, and cause us to reach frantically for our phones. But if the macaws choose to stay, soon their level on the exoticism scale will plunge to that of the blue jay (which you must admit is a pretty sensational-looking bird, when you see it for the first time).

I was squirrel-deprived as a child, and couldn’t get over, when I first met a gray squirrel, its twitching treble-clef tail, the bold look in its eyes, and the almost human way it used its hands. Now of course I hardly give squirrels a glance--unless there is a black one, in which case my sense of wonder returns unabated. 

But back to birds. Woodpeckers—downy, hairy, and red-bellied—love my feeders, but other than buying them suet cakes by the case, I barely notice them. Yet despite my tendency to wilt in the heat, I would trudge through the wilds of Arkansas if I had a real hope of seeing that holy grail of birders, the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Instead, why can’t I marvel each morning when the downies and the hairies and especially the red-bellieds (whose belly is barely pink, but whose head is a spectacular orangey-red) come to demolish the suet, flinging off bits of it that adhere greasily to my window? Why can’t I rejoice in their dailiness, their reliability, their familiarity? Like the rest of my species I harbor an unfortunate  prejudice in favor of the rare and extraordinary—the black swan, the white stag, and Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes. 

This preference for the exceptional is so ingrained in us that it must have survival value. The sight of a ruby-red strawberry in a field of boring green, and the subsequent burst of sweetness in the mouth of some Australopithecus grandmother must have cemented in her this taste for the unusual, which she then passed on to her descendants. 

So maybe there is survival value in preferring what is rare—physical survival at least. But what about the survival of sanity? We have evolved to be like magpies, disdaining the pebble in favor of the diamond. We have lost the ability to honor the everyday, and require ever sharper stimuli in order to attend—more color, more sound, more apps. Wouldn’t we be more at peace if, in this season of enforced seclusion, we put aside our binoculars and collector’s nets, and learned to truly see the acorn, the sparrow, and the moth? 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Writing Prompt

 One listless afternoon last week , I sat in the sun room thinking that I would never have anything else to write about. The Covid claustration had lasted almost as long as a pregnancy, and as happens with pregnancy my focus had turned progressively inward, until the external world had all but ceased to exist. Of course the external world is still around, but it is either off limits because of the virus risks, or so alarming and depressing (fires, floods, shootings, politics), that I simply shut it out. 

No, there really was nothing to write about, and probably would never be. This was it: the well had run dry; I had sung my swan song. I was deep into a fantasy of life as a non-writer when my dog Bisou burst into the outraged bark that she reserves for the fox: “out of my yard, you weird-looking dog!” I had been missing the fox’s visits, which had grown rarer now that the spring’s young were on their own, so I got up to take a look. 

There, just a couple of feet from the house and facing away from me was an odd-looking creature, larger than a squirrel but smaller than a fox. The back of its big ears was white rimmed with black. Its fur was tawny, its belly plump, its legs short, its tail stumpy. It was clearly an infant. But whose? 

OMG, I should be taking  photos! My phone was in the room somewhere, but like the apostles on Mount Tabor, I couldn’t bear to take my eyes off the apparition.  I whispered to my spouse to come look. What could it be?

Then the little animal turned to face us and its white cheek tufts gave it away. As did its ultra-fierce, non-cuddly demeanor, its look that said, come near me and I’ll bite off your arm…or maybe your fingertip. And having delivered this threat, it toddled off into the undergrowth. 

Where, I hope, the mother bobcat found it, gave it a good scolding (“you are NOT old enough to hunt squirrels, you hear?”) and took it home. 

I haven’t seen any more bobcats, big or little, since that day, though a near neighbor tells me she has seen what I hope is the mother. But that infant on the prowl has been constantly on my mind. Sometimes I think I’ve dreamed him (or her). And a dozen times every day I look out the sun room windows, just in case he's come back (as if). 

I feel grateful to Nature for sending me this writing prompt just in the nick of time, and for reminding me that the writer’s most important tool is neither intelligence nor inspiration, but the ability to pay attention. Colette wrote that her mother's greatest gift to her, what made her the writer she became, was the single word, "Regarde!" Everything starts with that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

New Shoes

Good-looking shoes--the kind that add height and subtract weight, taper the line from hip to toe, and sound the final chord to an outfit--were the last plank I clung to from the shipwreck of my youth. Until this week, my only concession to a painful, soon-to-be-replaced hip was to wear ballet-like flats with petal-thin soles. Before that, I wore shoes with heels a couple of inches high. And before that, stilettos. 

I come by my shoe fixation honestly. In her 90s, my diminutive paternal grandmother toddled on the cobbled streets of Barcelona in high heeled shoes with a strap across the instep. I, on the other hand, diagnosed with flat feet, clumped around in lace-up boots while my classmates gloried in their patent leather Mary Janes. “When the child is old enough to wear high heels,” the doctor assured my mother, “the arches will improve.” So when I turned sixteen my mother, who forbade make-up of any kind, tolerated kitten heels, which I wore daily as my sole badge of grown-up femininity. 

In the barefoot 1960s I wore wedge-heeled espadrilles, which were succeeded in the 70s by history’s weirdest footwear, wavy-soled Famolares (“walk better in waves” was the company's  motto).  In the 1980s, when career women walked to work in shoulder-padded suits and tennis shoes, I stuck to heels. I would trudge up College Hill in what my daughters called the shoes of death, lugging a briefcase full of books and corrected exams. The trip from home to office and back was close to four miles, and I walked it proudly and even briskly, every day. As the years passed I resigned myself to slightly lower, thicker heels. But except for swimming, I always wore heels. Even my bedroom slippers had little heels. 

All this came crashing down last week when my physical therapist looked down at my ballet flats, suppressed a giggle, and wrote a prescription for athletic shoes that she promised would lessen the pain. I have sacrificed much to vanity in my life, but faced with a disintegrating hip I decided to take the therapist’s advice and get some reasonable shoes. 

And now here they are, at the end of my legs, the proper shoes for my age and circumstance, a blight on the landscape. If my spike-heeled shoes were the footwear equivalent, in looks and sexiness if not in speed, of a sports car, my flats were modest sedans. My new athletic shoes--a size larger and wider than I normally wear, shock-absorbent, padded, cuffed, their soles inflated like snow tires --are the equivalent of a pair of SUVs. 


Also, they pose wardrobe dilemmas. I can’t wear them with skirts, leggings, narrow pants, or even jeans because they drag down the look. Ballooning below my ankles, for all their lighter-than-air technology they make me look like a duck, an elephant, a whale. 

The only thing I can possibly wear them with is sweats. 

Looking on the bright side, however, since I’m supposed to wear these locomotion enablers 24/7, and I only own a single pair of sweats, I’ll have an excuse to go shopping. Online, of course. But that will not be a problem, since fit is not a factor with sweats. 

And I have to admit that, when I go for a walk, the SUVs on my feet make me feel less like the Little Mermaid than those lissome ballet flats did. Possibly, even, the relaxed look on my face somewhat compensates for the clunkiness of my footwear. 

Did I mention that I also have a cane?

Monday, August 24, 2020


In 1956, when my parents and I were living in Quito, a group of Waorani warriors attacked five American Evangelical missionaries. They speared the men to death, threw their bodies and belongings into the Curaray river, and vanished into the forest. 

The Waorani, a Stone Age tribe living in the Amazon forest, were a far cry from Rousseau’s “noble savage.” They were extraordinarily violent—not only did they kill every outsider that came into their territory, but they slaughtered each other as well. One study found that, over five generations, 42% of Waorani deaths--women and children as well as warriors--were caused by revenge raids carried out by Waorani from neighboring groups.

In other respects, however, the Waorani showed traits that we consider exemplary. They lived in complete harmony with Nature, trusting that the forest would provide for all their needs. With their blowguns and curare-tipped arrows they hunted only the animals they needed for survival. They had little notion of past and future, and drew no difference between the physical and the spiritual realms. 

Our house backed onto the grounds of HCJB, The Voice of the Andes, a radio station manned by American Protestant missionaries who lived in a neat little American-style suburb surrounding the station. My parents became friendly with some of the families, and one of the men, who took music lessons from my father, was instrumental in our eventual move to the U.S. At age twelve, although I envied their manicured lawns and pristine houses, I resented the missionaries’ frequent allusions to Jesus and their endless Bible quotations, and I kept warning my parents that their supposed friendliness was a ploy to convert us to Evangelism. Secure in their Catholicism, my parents would laugh and urge me to be more tolerant. 

The deaths of the five young missionaries, who left behind their wives and half a dozen tow-headed infants and toddlers, devastated the HCJB community. What had begun as an exciting adventure to bring Jesus to a previously uncontacted tribe ended in a tragedy made all the more wrenching by the unexposed film found in the dead men’s pockets, which documented their final hours. 

The men’s first attempts to contact the Waorani consisted of flying over their settlements in a yellow single-engine plane and dropping gifts of pots, buttons, ribbons, and machetes. In return, the Waorani sent up a parrot, with a piece of banana to sustain him during the journey, in a sturdy cage made of woven reeds. 

After several fly-overs and gift-drops, the missionaries landed on a strip of sand by the Curaray river. Soon, three Waorani emerged from the forest: a young man, a girl who looked about fifteen, and an older woman, all wearing only a g-string. With many smiles and welcoming gestures, the Americans bestowed more gifts, including a model airplane. Then they put a shirt on the man, whose name was Nankiwi, and, without further preliminaries, put him on the plane and took him for a ride. 

Reading the Americans’ journal half a century later, I am astounded that they give no hint of any doubts about the wisdom and ethics of their project. Rather, the journals reveal nothing but exuberant confidence, optimism, and the conviction that this is the Lord’s work, which will result in the happiness and salvation of their intended converts. 

Nankiwi shouted with excitement during the entire plane ride, and by the time they returned to the beach, the Americans had decided to call him “George.” The girl they nicknamed “Delilah.” Whether they gave the older woman a name the journal does not say. 

I remember at the time looking at the photos of this naked girl, just a few years older than I, and wondering about her new American name. I knew about the Biblical Delilah, the voluptuous seductress who betrayed Samson. I found it weird and disquieting that they would name the girl after her. Surely the missionaries were aware of the original Delilah. Were they trying to be funny, or what? 

After more gifts and pleasantries, the man and the girl returned to the jungle, and the woman followed sometime later. Euphoric with the success of this first contact, the missionaries prayed and sang hymns, and settled down on the beach to await their next visitors. 

When they finally came, armed with spears and the gift machetes, they massacred the Americans in  minutes. 

I was enthralled by the mystery and violence of this story, and a part of my childish self admired the Waorani. Good for them, I thought, for not wanting to be converted, wear clothes, and sing hymns! Good for them, for defending their exciting life deep in the dark and unknown jungle. The lack of apparent justification for the massacre added to its fascination. Why had the Waorani seemed so friendly at first, and then suddenly changed their minds? 

Two years after the killings, Elisabeth Elliott, the widow of one of the slain missionaries, picked up a Bible, put her toddler on her back Indian style, and walked into Waorani territory. Unlike her husband and his friends, she was accepted. Other missionaries soon joined her, and the Waorani converted to Evangelism. 

Eventually, the new converts explained what had caused the massacre. It seems that Nankiwi and the girl were romantically involved, but her family and especially her brother were against the relationship. When the pair went to meet the missionaries, the older woman accompanied them as chaperone. But when the girl’s brother saw the couple returning unescorted from the beach he became enraged and turned on Nankiwi who, to distract attention from himself, said that the missionaries had attacked them. This prompted the warriors to organize the revenge raid. 

Today the majority of Waorani live in villages, go to school, and enjoy internet access. They have mostly stopped killing each other. They wear clothes, and have forsworn polygamy, their chants and dances, and their ayahuasca rituals. Some still hunt, but many depend on the ecotourism industry for economic survival. Despite the protection afforded by the Ecuadorean government, their lands are under constant threat by the oil companies. 

But a couple of Waorani groups, the fiercest, refusing to be Westernized, have retreated to the few remaining deep jungle pockets, from which they continue to repel invaders with their spears, and possibly a machete or two. 

Delilah, photographed by one of the missionaries