Thursday, January 17, 2019

My Final Farm

Never more than a dozen hens for eggs, and two does for milk. A vegetable patch big enough for everything except potatoes and corn. Some apple trees, a plum, a pear, and half a dozen blueberry bushes. Given what else I was dealing with, my forays into micro-farming were insane, but at least I kept one principle firmly in mind: small is beautiful.

My adult life is marked by three separate ventures into self-sufficiency, all of them harking back to the  farm that kept my teenage mother and her family alive and fed during the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. When she wasn't plunging into creeks in the middle of the night to escape from bombardments, my teenage mother drank goat's milk and ate home-grown rabbits and pigeons and chickens and eggs and grapes and almonds and olives and cabbages and kale. Meanwhile, in their elegant Barcelona apartment my father's family quietly starved for the three years the war lasted, filling their stomachs with water from the faucet every night so they could sleep.

I was born five years after the end of the bombs and the hunger, carrying in my DNA the conviction that when times got bad you could grow your own food and survive, or live an urban life and starve.

My husband and I bought our first house from an older Austrian woman who had probably had some of the same fear-and-hunger experiences as my parents, and had filled her acre and a half with an ambitious vegetable garden, 25 fruit trees, a berry patch, a chicken house. I, who had never grown so much as a tomato in my life, plunged into self-sufficiency like a nun into her vows. That was farm #1.

It was succeeded by #2, after I had to give up my career following a diagnosis of CFS. I was in survival mode and thought, well, everything is going to hell in a hand basket, the least I can do is try to grow some food.

Farm #3, my best-loved, was in Vermont, where we moved when my husband retired. Besides the usual goats and chickens and vegetable beds and apple trees  there were for-real woods where I could gather ramps in spring, and fields where the nearby farmer harvested for-real hay. I used to stand in the front field watching my goats gobble dandelions and think, am I really here? Is this really mine?

But farming even on a micro scale and CFS don't age well together, and one day I threw my hands up and declared that it was time to be realistic and responsible and move to a retirement community on the shores of Lake Champlain. Still in Vermont, still beautiful, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a farm.

I now live in a small cottage with all mod cons and never have to worry about dinner, which is served in the community center up the hill. But this hasn't extinguished my farming drive. My tiny enclosed porch has become farm #4, my final farm.

In it, on sunny afternoons, I sit with my dog Bisou and the cat Telemann. In a Japanese-style tub beside me Yin and Yang, the goldfish, lead seemingly contented lives, protected from Telemann by an electrified scat-mat. Pots of houseplants, the successors to my vegetable gardens, surround me: geraniums prompted into bloom by the light reflected off the snow, an ancient jade plant almost too heavy for me to lift, a Christmas cactus that my cat loves to chew. And, because I haven't given up on my dreams of self-sufficiency, a Meyer lemon tree and a Calamondin orange that gives enough fruit to make marmalade in case of an emergency.

Just outside the window are my substitute chickens.  Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, finches gold-, purple-, and house-, and woodpeckers large and small eat the seeds and suet and drink at the four-season bird bath. Beneath the feeders, obese squirrels squabble over spilled seeds, and at sacred moments clever Reynard, my red fox, trots past on his slender black-stockinged feet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Whiny Writers

Why are we writers such a whiny lot? And it's often the best writers who complain the most. E.B. White kvetched endlessly about having to write his weekly Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker. He moved to a farm in Maine, where he hoped to be able to write more easily, only to discover that he would much rather farm than write. He lamented that, as he went about slopping the pig or gathering the eggs, he couldn’t “watch the show just for the fun of it,” but had to be constantly thinking how to write about it (see Scott Elledge, E.B. White).

Whenever Flaubert wasn’t writing, he was complaining about it to his friend, George Sand: “You don’t know what it’s like […] to spend an entire day with your head in your hand in order to find the right word[…] I spend my life gnawing at my heart and my brain.”

And here is the great Colette, at her peak, telling an interviewer, “I don’t like to write. Not only do I not like to write, but I especially like not writing […] I am so happy, so happy when I’m not writing, that it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t write…” Asked what she’d like to do instead, she answers: “Anything! Anything except writing! Carpentry, gardening, polishing the furniture …”

Colette in her eighties. Her right pinky was permanently bent from decades of writing.
Like Flaubert, she labored endlessly over every word. The appendices of the Pléiade edition of her works show that for every line of finished text there are often half a dozen lines of false starts, reversals, and erasures. So fond was she of not writing that at the height of her career she opened a cosmetology salon. Fortunately, it was a failure and she was forced to return to writing.

Me, I don’t like not writing, but I love having written. Even if I’m just writing about something cute that the cat has done, after I’ve poured my daily ration of words onto the screen I feel cleansed somehow, purged, at ease. It’s the way I imagine skilled meditators (of whom I am not one) must feel after their daily sitting.

There are times, of course, when I don’t like writing. These occur mostly when I haven’t written for a while. Then I find myself stumbling over prepositions, enmeshed in clauses, entrapped by tenses. The main thing I lose when I have been away from writing is the discipline of the first draft, which for me consists of shaking out whatever is in my head onto the screen, as if I were dumping out a waste basket.

At this point, if I allow myself the slightest backward glance over the piece, I always turn into a pillar of salt. The backward glances are the second stage. But by then I have something to work on. The page is no longer a trackless desert over which I must wander alone. There’s stuff—mostly stupid stuff, but stuff--already there. Now all I have to do is fix it, mostly by the enthusiastic use of the delete key.

When I was a sculptor I would start with a block of Indiana limestone and then make a head, or a cat, or a human figure by slowly chiseling off what didn’t belong. As a writer, I first have to produce the stone itself, by quarrying words out of my brain and hurling them onto the screen. Then I chip away until the mess starts to make sense, and becomes something that someone might want to read.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Basement Felines

In the basement of my psyche there are cats. Big ones: two lionesses and a tiger. They are a sorry-looking trio, so thin that you can see their ribs and hip bones under their dull and patchy fur. Night and day they pace in the dark, roaring. They are starving, and it’s my fault: I’m too scared to feed them.

Periodically I crack the door open and peer down the stairs at them, and their stench, like a thousand dirty litter boxes, makes me gasp. I need to change their bedding, but that would mean going down there.

What are two lionesses and a tiger doing in my basement? I put them there, in a fit of insanity, because I wanted the thrill of having these wild, fierce, unpredictable creatures under my roof. What was I thinking? Now I’m stuck with them.

What if they escape? They will surely hunt down and kill the first moving thing they see, maybe somebody’s dog, or one of the neighbors. All the same, I cannot keep them here, to slowly starve to death.

Maybe I could lure them into the car and release them in some faraway wilderness, but to do that I’d have to get close to them. The only responsible thing would be to call the authorities, but which authorities? The zoo? The fire department? The police? The police will come with their guns drawn, and shoot the poor cats. I don’t think I could stand that. Or, the cats might jump on a policeman or firefighter or zoo keeper—someone with a spouse and little kids at home—and eat them. I couldn’t live with the guilt if that happened.

Either way, whether the cats kill or are killed, I will surely be questioned, and held responsible. The embarrassment will be appalling. People will think I’m crazy, or criminal, or both. But things can’t go on like this. Somehow, I must get rid of these animals.

In the basement of my psyche, there are cats….

Friday, December 28, 2018

Morning List

Every morning, right after breakfast, I should get down on the floor and meditate. A mere twenty minutes will make me a calmer, happier person, but only if I do it every day.

A long as I’m down there, I might as well do a few yoga poses—just cat and cow and maybe tree so I’ll be more limber when I go to my Friday yoga class.

Which reminds me that on Tuesday I have tai chi, and it would be a good idea to run through the form a few times so I don’t forget the moves. You have to do these things every day to reap full benefits.

I mustn’t forget to take Bisou for her walk, especially since she has recently gained one pound, and needs to lose it (as do I). Morning walks are best, while the day is young and the scents of the night creatures are fresh on the grass.

And then there’s Telemann, the cat. After Bisou’s walk I should bring out his furry snake and make him chase it for a bit. It might help him to spend more time napping and less time flying around the house breaking things.

Speaking of Telemann (the composer, not the cat), I need to work on that Fantasia of his. My recorder teacher says that I’m only allowed to skip practice on the days when I don’t eat. As with other challenging things, it’s best to get it done early in the day.

Remember that old advice for writers, nulla dies sine linea—not a day without a line? I should do my writing before the morning’s gone. I always feel so much better, having written.

Also, before my eyes get tired from looking at the computer, I should do some drawing. As they say, use it or lose it.

Then there is the list of unanswered emails that has been haunting me. The only way to deal with it is to be disciplined and make it a part of my morning routine.

And I should definitely take a daily spin through Facebook—why do I seem to be the only person who can’t keep up with it? I should check it first thing every morning, while I’m still fresh….

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Walking Lessons

I got home from high school and found my mother walking up and down the hallway behind my toddling sister. My mother was stooped over, holding the baby’s hands to keep her upright. My sister had a determined look in her eyes, but my mother’s face was screwed up with pain. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m teaching her to walk, of course.”

At sixteen, I didn’t know much about babies, but we had studied evolution in school, and I thought that our ape-like ancestors must have transitioned to bipedal locomotion without special instruction.

“Don’t you think she could learn to walk on her own?” I said.

 “No, no. She’s too little! She would fall and break a tooth, or hurt her head. I have to do this, even if it breaks my back.” My mother let go of the baby’s hands and straightened up slowly. My sister sat down on the floor and howled.

“See what I mean? She never gets tired. What a child! I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” my mother sighed, resignedly pulling the baby upright and holding her hands.

Leading from the hip, my sister thrust one fat leg forward, wobbled, balanced, then stuck out the other leg. My mother followed, groaning. I went into my room to do homework and reflected, for the first time, on my mother’s hands-on mothering style.

I remembered being spoon-fed by her long after I could cut my own meat. By the time I could recite the multiplication tables she was still combing my hair, washing my face, tying my shoes, buttoning my coat up to my chin and reminding me not to take it off without first obtaining her permission.

She did all these things with a rueful smile that said, “Motherhood! Such a glorious but demanding vocation.” Labor, according to her, did not end with the  baby’s birth, but was only the prelude to a lifetime of effort and sacrifice on the mother’s part.

Now, watching her give my sister walking lessons with my critical adolescent eye, it occurred to me that her intense involvement with my sister and me may have had more to do with her tsunami-like life force and its search for an outlet than with our real needs.

The first girl from her village to attend university, she had studied classics and then law. But when she married she gave it all up to do...not much of anything.
With my father at work, a live-in maid to do the housework (we were by no means wealthy, but in Spain in those days you didn’t need to be to have a maid), and just one child to look after, she was starving for challenges—opinions to sway, people to lead, victories to savor.  And there I was in the next room, gnawing on the crib railing, waiting to be perfected.

It was probably in her DNA, because my mother’s mother was just as driven and intense. But she at least had a farm to run while my grandfather, a vet with no head for business, was off taking care of the village livestock. She had sharecroppers to supervise; wheat, oats, and olives to send to market; broody hens to coddle; rabbits to fatten, slaughter, and cook; and four children to raise.

But it looks like my grandmother too believed that babies would never learn to walk unless they had proper instruction. Here she is, in her farmyard outfit, ensuring that I will not have to spend my life in a wheelchair. She is holding me upright with a kitchen towel drawn up under my arms. This keeps her from having to stoop, a back-saving technology that my mother would have done well to adopt.

I look pleased to be standing on my own two legs. Probably, I’ll want to keep going long after my grandmother is ready to stop. I can see her now, rolling her eyes, proudly complaining to my mother, “Ai, Maria santissima! What are we going to do with this child? She’s worn me out. All she wants to do is walk!”

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Tire and I

Back in the mists of our early marriage, my husband showed me how to check the air pressure in the car tires. But those were the halcyon days of full-service gas stations, when the attendant always asked “check your tires, ma’am?” I would answer yes, and he would crawl around the car doing whatever was needed while I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and looking off into space.
Now, a half century later, the chickens of my cavalier attitude towards tire maintenance have come to roost. Twice in the last six months, while I was far from home, the tire warning light gave me a fright by coming on.

The first time was during an episode of “wintry mix,” when the sky was simultaneously spewing rain, snow, and those annoying Styrofoam-like ice pellets. I was wearing a down vest instead of a parka and shoes instead of boots—I had expected to stay in the car, after all—and when I pulled into a filling station I had to tromp through a mountain of gritty snow that the plow had piled in front of the air pump.

I connected the air pump hose into my tire, got some quarters, waded into the snow bank, fed the machine, returned to the tire—and nothing happened. I offered the machine more quarters, hoping that my generosity would persuade it to disgorge some air, with no success. As a layer of wintry mix hardened on my glasses, I went into the station and asked for help.

“I’m sorry, the machine is out of order,” the attendant said.
“Do you know where I could find one that works?”
“Nah, not around here…”

Shivering, I got back in the car, dried my glasses, and drove home with bated breath, the tire light flashing reproachfully all the way. While I recovered with a glass of wine by the fireplace, my husband quickly inflated the tire with his portable air pump.

The next time the tire light came on was a sweltering July day. I was driving through the adorable Vermont countryside, replete with cows and barns, meadows and ponds. I stopped at a country store and was told that the nearest station was 30 miles away, but when I got there, there was no air pump. After more miles of hills, woods and farms I found a station with an air pump, which was out of order.

Sweating from every pore, holding my breath lest the tire go completely flat, I traveled on and at last found a station with a working pump. But by then I was so frazzled and dehydrated that all I could do was throw myself at the mercy of the cash register guy, who kindly inflated my tire while I sipped some Gatorade.

It took a while—about five months --to gear myself up for it, but yesterday I announced to my husband that I was going into the garage to check the tires, and would he stick around in case I needed help.

It was 20F outside and barely warmer in the garage, but I figured that this would be good practice for me, since the tire light liked to come on in extreme weather.

I found the air pump, plugged it into the cigarette lighter socket, and approached tire #1. I have a lifelong aversion to getting my hands dirty, and I wear gloves to dust a book or wash a dish, but this job would require fine manipulation, so gloves were out of the question. Trying to keep from touching any dirt, I unscrewed the inflation nozzle cap with my fingertips. This required me to kneel on the unpristine floor, but I reminded myself that in a real situation, i.e., by the side of the highway, conditions would be far worse.

“O.k.,” my husband said, “now screw the air hose connector onto the nozzle.”
I had to bend my arm at a weird angle to do this, and no matter how hard I tried the hose connector refused to connect with the nozzle. By now my fingers were red and stiff with cold, and smudged with grease.

Suddenly, a hiss as from a thousand cobras came out of the tire. “Quick! You’re losing air! Keep turning the screw!” my instructor said. But my frozen fingers could barely function, and the hiss was making it hard for me to concentrate.

Somehow the hiss stopped, and I checked the pressure gauge: 32 psi—just right.
But as I began to unscrew the hose connector, the hiss started up again. “You’ve probably lost too much air. Check the pressure again,” he instructed. I did: 31psi. “You’ll have to reinflate,” he said.

I rescrewed the connector onto the nozzle until the hiss went away. I pressed the On button on the pump and held on as it blasted air into the tire. I checked the pressure: 33 psi. I’d have to let some air out again, take another reading, reinflate….

What circle of hell, I wondered, was I stuck in? Would there ever be an end to this? Would my frozen fingers bend again? I didn’t remember the station attendants of yore having all this trouble.

Somehow, I got tire #1 done. I had to grab the door handle to stand up (my knees were frozen too). I brushed the dirt off my pants, hobbled over to tire #2, and genuflected. Some neighbors walking by saw me struggling with the air pump while my husband stood by with his hands in his pockets, and quickly averted their eyes.

Contrary to my expectations, tire #2 was no easier than #1, and neither was #3 or #4. Practice was not making perfect here. At one point there was an episode of cross-threading that I don’t want to even think about.

“I think that’s good enough,” my husband finally said of my work on #4. He helped me up and led me into the house.

“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed, scrubbing my hands at the kitchen sink and slathering lotion on them. “Am I going to have to go through this every time I check the tire pressure? It’s too damn hard! There’s got to be a better way.”

“Uber?” said my husband.

But I will not capitulate. Research shows that it takes on average ten thousand hours to master a skill such as playing the violin. Assuming tire inflation to be only 50% as difficult, that means I’ll have to spend five thousand hours crawling around on the garage floor, screwing connectors and reading psis before I get it right.

Even so, I have no illusion that I’ll ever approximate the easy grace of those gas station guys of yore who so sweetly used to ask, “Check your tires, ma’am?”

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Critters in my Bed

On my grandparents’ farm, a chick hatched with a twisted leg.  “Wring its neck, or the others will peck it to death,” my grandfather advised. But my grandmother had other ideas.

She lined a shoe box with hay, punched holes in the lid, and put the chick inside. She set the box in a brown wicker basket, along with twelve eggs individually wrapped in newspaper, a slab of fatback from last year’s pig to flavor my mother’s white beans, and a cabbage from the garden.

My uncle got on his bike and rushed to the recader, the messenger who got on the train and delivered my grandmother’s weekly baskets to us in Barcelona, where I was recovering from measles.

That evening the chick was on my bed, pecking at breadcrumbs.

I spent a good part of my childhood in bed, with colds and fevers and sore throats. I would pass the hours by imagining faces in the cracks in the ceiling and making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers. Sometimes, nearly mad with boredom, I crawled under the sheets, all the way down to the foot of the bed, and stayed there until lack of air pushed me gasping back to the top.

My grandmother’s chick changed all that. Cheeping and hobbling on the sheet, flapping his stubby wings, he kept me company. Together we listened to the clanging of the streetcars outside and the singing of the maids as they washed the dishes in the neighboring apartments. Together we waited for the stories that my mother and my aunts took turns reading to us.

When, decades later, I was diagnosed with CFS, another, much longer era of bed rest began. But there is no real rest in this condition--just a malaise of mind and body, like the onset of a flu that never goes away, and an inability to relax or get comfortable, while the mind treads obsessively on the same well-worn track: This can’t go on! What can I do to get better? What if I never get better?

During what I call my horizontal days, there is little that other humans, no matter how loving, can do for me, since the energy to talk or even listen is more than I can muster. But I am never lonely. A long roster of critters, the successors of my grandmother’s lame chick, have kept me company through the worst of the illness.

On my bed these days you will find little red Bisou, a Cavalier, and Telemann, a gray cat. They love it that my CFS keeps me mostly at home. Best of all, for them, are the days when, after breakfast, I have to go back to bed and stay there. “Yay!” they say to each other as they rush past me into the bedroom, “she’s going back to bed!”

I lie on my back and Bisou reclines against my left leg. Telemann sits on my chest, purring and kneading, his white toes spread wide. Then he touches my nose with his, blinks three times and falls asleep.
So do I, if I am lucky. Otherwise, I close my eyes and try to remember Buddhist precepts (“pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”) but they bring me little comfort. Instead, I place my left hand on the dog, my right on the cat. Bisou’s long, flat coat feels like satin; Telemann’s short, thick fur feels like velvet. Their ribs rise and fall under my fingers, and gradually my own breathing slows down. We doze in a pile like an ill-assorted litter, and I can feel the oxytocin lapping at my tissues.

My spouse looks in. “Won’t you rest better if I get the animals out of here and close the door?” he asks.

“No! Please leave them. We’re fine,” I assure him. I can’t imagine anything more depressing than me alone in the room, obsessing about things left undone that I may never get done (what will my friends think if I cancel X? Will my loved ones stop loving me if I don’t do Y?) It would be like going back to my pre-chick days.

What impelled my grandmother to send me that bird? She belonged to a farm culture in which all animals, wild and domestic, were kept strictly outdoors. The hunting dog was chained in the yard, and the semi-feral cats that emerged from the hayloft only to beg for bread crusts never knew the touch of a human hand. A chicken in bed with a sick child! What could be more unsanitary, dangerous, disgusting? But fortunately for me, my grandmother listened to the instinct that told her that the lame chick would do me more good than any drug.

When the afternoon light begins to fade Bisou checks her inner watch: is it dinner time yet? Telemann yawns, executes a perfect down-face dog, and jumps off the bed. I throw a parka over my pajamas and take Bisou outside. Indoors, Telemann leaps miaowing from windowsill to windowsill, urging her to hurry up. 

After dinner, they both get the zoomies. Telemann hides behind the sofa and leaps on Bisou as she trots by. She turns and chases him under the bed. He dashes out and bats at her wagging tail. When he starts to lose interest, she paws at him to get going again.

We make a good team, the dog, the cat, and I. Together we have lived through another day without giving in to despair. I haven’t done the laundry, played the recorder, written a single line, or washed my hair, and there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to do these things tomorrow. But B and T, now stretched out before the fireplace and blissfully digesting their meal, aren’t thinking about tomorrow, and perhaps neither should I.