Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dilemma

Had three appointments with service providers this week, and they went something like this:

The hairdresser parted my wet hair into sections, picked up the scissors and said, “And what are your plans for this afternoon?”

 “Got any plans for the afternoon?” the chiropractor wanted to know, preparing to twist my head off my neck.

“Got anything fun planned for later on today?” said the dental hygienist, adjusting the chair.

And the dentist: “Open wide? Awesome! Ummm...do you have any nice plans for the rest of the day?”

When I mumbled something noncommittal they all, with the exception of the hygienist, asked if I had any exciting travel plans or have been anywhere exciting recently.

I find these questions embarrassing. Don’t these people know that I know how boring they must find their clients’ responses? Do they really think that I am so naïve as to assume they will be fascinated when I tell them that I expect to take a nap the minute I get home, then maybe read a book? Do they think that I have no theory of mind?

But if there is one thing I have in spades, it’s theory of mind. I have so much of it, in fact, that I am often silenced by a too-vivid image of how trivial what I’m about to say will seem to my listener.

 Is there anything more soul-killing than someone nattering on about their schedule? The only being on the planet on whom I inflict the details of my afternoon plans is my spouse of fifty-two years. Ditto for travel plans and stories. Who, aside perhaps from one’s own mother, wants to hear about the bistro in Bogota or the flight to Madagascar?

So when people assume that I do not possess the ability to put myself in their place (something that the normal child learns to do by about age four) I feel patronized and embarrassed.

I wonder why these otherwise capable professionals persist in these inquiries. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for five years, and for five years he’s asked about my plans for the afternoon, never noticing that every time I deftly shift the conversation to his Labradoodle,  who is in fragile health.

This tiresome practice is probably the fault of some business guru, who came up with the idea that asking clients questions about their schedules and travels would improve their satisfaction and lead to financial success. But that only works if the clients have a strong narcissistic streak, or lack theory of mind.

My hairdresser, my chiropractor, my dentist and hygienist are professionals. I am their client. I don’t need to feel that we are buddies. Why can’t we rest peacefully in our respective roles and dispense with these attempts at formulaic chitchat?

Of course the trouble with theory of mind is that it is just that: a theory. Which means that when I imagine that my dentist would be bored if I told him about a trip I took in 1984, I may be wrong. He might in fact be deeply interested in my story, and feel gratified that I am willing to share it with him. Perhaps he gets lonely, endlessly digging around in people’s mouths while they cringe in anticipated pain, and is starved for conversation.

So what should I do--answer the questions and be found boring, or dissemble and be thought unfriendly?  The horns of this dilemma are sharper than a dentist’s drill. The only solution I can think of is to let my hair grow to my waist, do hours of yoga every morning, and commend my teeth to the Universe.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My Inner Snail


Donat pressa! my mother urged at the door of our apartment, as I searched everywhere for my chapel veil. We were on our way to Mass, and if we didn’t get there before the Ofertory we wouldn’t fulfill our Sunday obligation.

Corre, corre! the maid Luisa would say as we trudged up the hill to my school. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns who taught me.

Schnell, schnell! Schwester Maria hissed as I dawdled outside the classroom.

“She’s so slow!” the nuns would lament to my mother. And they were right. In the morning, it took me forever to unbutton my coat, put on my smock (we wore white smocks over our woolen uniforms to protect them from ink stains), find my desk, and get my homework out of my satchel. At lunchtime, I had to reverse the process, and I was always the last one out of the building.

Neither the nuns nor my mother scolded me for my slowness, but I spent my childhood being pressed to get on with it, stop dawdling, pay attention! It felt as if I were mounted on a snail, while everyone else galloped past me on horseback.

It took me ages to learn to tie my shoes. I was ten before I learned to ride a bicycle, twelve before I learned to tell time. I was the last in my class to finish a row of knitting, and in playground chase games I never caught anybody, but was easy prey for my faster classmates.

I lived in a world where people were in a perpetual rush. My father would come home for lunch, fling off his coat, and sit at the table. He would put his watch by his plate and announce, “I have five minutes to eat!” and five minutes later he’d be out the door, violin in hand, on the way to rehearsal. Although my father was the main rusher in the household, my mother, my aunts, and the maid also seemed to live in a whirlwind of activity.

For my part, I dwelt inside a kind of semi-transparent egg, where sights and sounds reached me dimly, and mostly without claiming my attention. While the world spun around me, I peered dreamily at random objects—the s-shaped arm rest in the Tyrolean-style dining room bench, the crusty bread crumbs under the table after a meal, the blue and yellow floor tiles, the raised velvety flowers on the ugly sofa upholstery. I wondered about invisible stuff too, and astounded my mother when, at four years old, I asked her to explain what things were like, before they existed.

But mostly I thought about things that I hoped would happen: that a sudden illness of my maternal grandmother’s would mean that I had to leave school and go with my mother to help out at the farm. And, later on, that my father’s negotiations with the Ecuadorian government would work out so that, again, I could leave school and go with my parents to Ecuador.

In Ecuador my woolgathering habit persisted. Because of the discrepancy between the Spanish and the Ecuadorian systems, at twelve I was put in a class with fifteen-year-old girls, whose obsession with hairstyles, boys, and their “monthly visitor” made me think that they were all insane. I retreated deep inside my egg, and in four years made only one friend, a girl who, as the eldest of twelve children, was accustomed to taking care of slower siblings.

My inwardness was more obvious than I knew. One morning I realized with a start that I was still standing in the silent school courtyard when the rest of my class had filed into the classroom. But I wasn’t alone. Regarding me with her sparkling green eyes, Madre María, the dreaded vice-principal, shook her wimple and said, “I see you’re out of it as usual, Benejam!”

It was only in my teens that I learned to hurry. I hurried to learn English, to clean the house, to play the violin in my father’s orchestra, to finish my term papers, to sterilize my sister’s formula, to put my hair up in rollers at night, to get to Mass in the morning.

With Time’s winged chariot forever at my back, I became a champion hurrier, but at the cost of leaving things half done, of putting the final period on a paper that I knew could be much better, of having to make do with good enough. Newly married, I watched in wonder as my husband dried himself after a shower, from head to toe, including between his toes. I was used to jumping still half-wet into my clothes, never mind drying between my toes.

The older I got, the faster I rushed—mothering, working, cooking, thinking. I did everything at top speed, schnell, schnell! But that was only on the outside. Inside, I was still the same slow me, pondering endless trivia, riding my snail, and wondering if things would ever slow down.

Now that the mothering, the working, and the cooking are mostly over, I still feel that there isn’t enough time in the day for all the things that must be done: clipping the dog’s nails, folding towels, answering emails, inquiring about sick friends, meditating, exercising….My fondest hope is that, sometime in my remaining years, the slow, backward child that still dawdles inside my brain will stop trying to keep up, and be at peace with her snail.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Telemann and the Spider Plant


He glares down at me like a gargoyle from the top of the six-foot bookcase, lashes his tail, blinks. “What!” he says, and goes back to administering the death by a thousand cuts to my spider plant.

I have, since Telemann came to us from the mean streets of Philadelphia two years ago, disposed of most of my houseplants. The ASPCA’s list of plants that are toxic to cats lists 417 species (including, for some reason, catnip), so I am now down to a couple of citrus trees, a jade plant, and my once-flourishing spider plant, which is not poisonous because, if it were, Telemann would have died long ago.

When Telemann first arrived, the spider plant was busy making babies on a shelf in the sunroom. Swaying in the slightest breeze, those babies proved irresistible to a kitten who had, poor thing, until now been deprived of toys, stimulation, healthy food, veterinary care, love, and a warm home. As soon as he saw those plantlets, he knocked down a couple and ate them.

I moved the plant to the dining table, but by the next morning several more babies had perished. I thought that the sideboard would provide refuge, but it didn’t take long for Telemann to enact the botanical equivalent of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

I transferred the grieving mother plant to the highest spot in the cottage—the top of the tall bookcase in our bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of light there, but spider plants are tough, and after a while it started to look more cheerful. But that was before Telemann figured that it was only an easy five-foot leap (I made my husband measure it) from the nightstand to the plant. We covered the top of the bookcase with loops of packing tape, sticky side up, but that didn’t deter Telemann, who is probably the only cat on earth who doesn’t mind sticky tape on his paws.

Why are cats so amoral? Why do they do bad things and not care? Dogs try hard to be good, and if they sometimes fail, they suffer pangs of conscience. When Bisou used to do bad things, she always felt guilty. (Now that she’s ten, she hasn’t done anything bad in a long time.)

You’d think that after all I’ve done for him Telemann would let us have one measly spider plant to purify the air while we sleep. But reciprocity is not in his repertoire. If, as the cliché has it, dogs give humans unconditional love, cats expect unconditional love from us.

Still, despite his disastrous effects on my houseplants, I always manage to forgive Telemann, partly because in a weird way I admire his après moi le déluge attitude, his focus on his own desires, and his confounded nerve, which remind me of various autocrats, past and present. Luckily Telemann, with his velvety gray fur, little white paws, and slender body, is much easier on the eye. Plus he does have his sweet moments, when he becomes a purring, kneading machine, and exacts all the unconditional love I have to give.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Milestone

Google Blogger, which keeps track of such things, tells me that as of last week I have published one thousand posts on My Green Vermont. Other than breathing and sleeping and brushing my teeth, I can’t think of too many acts I’ve repeated a thousand times.

Back in 2008 the friend who got me started (thanks, Indigo!) had to explain to me what a blog was. Wanting to avoid unnecessary gaffes, I consulted a number of websites about the rules of successful blogging. And they all said the same thing: you must post frequently. Daily, if possible. Several times a day, if you’re really serious.

I took the advice to heart and gradually increased my output until by 2010 I was posting over four times a week. That was the most I could manage, given that I’d also taken it into my head to accompany each post with a drawing. None of the how-to-blog sites recommended this, but I did notice that most blogs featured photos, many of them beautiful, sensational, or both.  Apparently, online readers expected to be served pictures along with words.

I had a digital camera but its battery was unreliable, and rather than deal with that I decided that it would be simpler and more creative to illustrate my posts by hand. (Now, after all these years, I could paper a room with the originals of my little drawings.)

How did I come up with so much to write about? It turns out that blogging is like finding a loose thread in one of those factory-made hems—you give a little tug, and it just keeps coming. I would start a post about one of my pullets laying her first egg, and that led to memories of being in bed recovering from the measles, with my pet lame chick hobbling and cheeping on the blanket.

I wrote endlessly about chickens and goats and gardens and woodstoves and the wonder of having made it to Vermont, where I could finally live “close to the earth,” as I proclaimed on the blog’s banner. When it became apparent that I couldn’t sustain my homesteading way of life indefinitely, we moved to a retirement community, and for a while I wrote about the dramas of downsizing, and the necessity of letting go of beloved objects and remaining flexible in spirit if not in body.

And then, one day, there seemed to be nothing more to write about. Gone were the goats and the milking pail, the hens and the egg basket, the compost and the wheelbarrow. The woodstove gave way to an efficient gas fireplace and my garden was reduced to a couple of potted citrus trees in the sun room (I gamely squeezed out a post about those).

What was the meaning, if any, of my new life? What occupied my mind? There were my fellow residents, obviously, and the shock of living in a kind of village where the only people under sixty-five were the staff. Plenty of grist for the mill there, but what if a neighbor took it into her head to read my blog?

Between 2015 and 2018 I only managed a measly total of sixty posts. And, just as the advice websites had predicted, my readership all but disappeared, drawn no doubt to livelier, more committed bloggers who managed to post every day, or even twice a day.

Then this year, in the dark of winter, I was spending my days in a miasma of politically-induced despondency. I badly needed to shake myself out of that state. What if I started blogging again, maybe only once a week? I could pretend that it was a real job that required me to post every Wednesday, except in case of emergency. What did I have to lose?

And so I tricked myself back into writing, and once I gave that initial tug, the thread kept coming. Now my week has rhythm and shape.
With a feeling of dread approaching nausea (what if, this time, the thread has broken, the well run dry?) on Thursday morning I force myself to spew whatever is in my head onto the screen. On Friday I piously gather any crumbs worth preserving and ditch the rest. I spend the weekend adding more crumbs and worrying about how I’m going to wrap the thing up.
On Monday I ditch some more and, if I’m lucky, come up with an ending. Tuesday is for drawing and for fighting the improvements that Canon insists on making to my scanner. On Wednesday, just before I hit “Publish,” I ditch some more (how could I have let this ridiculous sentence almost make it into the finished piece?). For the rest of the day I bask in the relief-- reminiscent of the way I once felt after my daily run--of having written.

And because I fret daily about meeting my self-imposed deadline, other worries, such as about the fate of the nation, not to mention the planet, are temporarily forced to take a back seat. It’s going to be a long, angst-filled political campaign. The way things are going, I may have to start posting daily, just to keep my sanity.




Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Face of Love


I don’t have the words yet to explain why what I want is so important, so I open my mouth wide and yell, and stamp my feet.

Olé, olé!” my mother claps, “Are you a flamenco dancer?”

If I had been frustrated before, now I am enraged. How dare she? How dare she mock me when I am trying to communicate something crucial? I would like to fly across the room and bite her on the leg. But her ploy has worked, and I swallow my tantrum, lest she laugh at me again.

My aunt swears that she taught me to read when I was three, so this next scene must have happened around that time: I am in a store with my mother. A nice woman, dressed in black (women in black are everywhere in Barcelona in these days after the Spanish Civil War), strokes my cheek and, for some reason, asks me if I can read.

“Yes, I can,” I answer.

“No. You don’t know how to read yet,” my mother says.

“Yes! Yes! I can read!” I insist.

My mother pulls an envelope out of her purse and thrusts it in front of my face. “O.k., then, read this.”

The letters on the envelope are small, rounded, and crowded together--not at all like the big, clear letters of the alphabet that I have just begun to learn. The writing swims and blurs before my eyes, which are filling with tears. How can she humiliate me like this in front of a stranger? Isn’t she supposed to be on my side? And didn’t she just the other day, when I finally made it to the end of the alphabet, exclaim “What a big girl you are—you’re reading!” I feel betrayed and full of spite, and I would bite her if I could….

It seems odd that a little kid would have a fully developed sense of personal dignity, and would react with such force when it was attacked. Where did this come from? Was there an extra gene for dignity in my DNA? Or does the fact that those rages felt so primal mean that they were less about dignity than about survival as my own person?

In the coming years, I learned to divert my rages and do to myself what I would like to do to my mother. In my room, with the door closed, I would roll up my white uniform blouse and bite my forearm hard enough to leave tooth marks.

I don’t think that my mother, who was not a cruel woman, realized any of this. If she had been mean all the time, it would have been easier for me to take a stand, and simply hate her. But hers was the face of love in my life.

The happiest moments--happier even than the morning of January 6, when the Magi brought me gifts--were those occasions when, my father being away, she would let me share her bed and we would cuddle before I fell asleep enveloped in the smell of her skin.

To me she was more beautiful than any woman in all of Spain, possibly in the entire planet. I embarrassed her one day when, coming back from Mass, I confided that I’d been examining the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, demure in her white veil, blue sash, and mild expression, and concluded that my mother was every bit as beautiful as She.

But if in the daytime I found my mother as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, at night I had a recurring nightmare in which a green-faced witch, not unlike the one I’d seen in The Wizard of Oz, drew me irresistibly toward her.  The horror of the dream lay in my utter helplessness, in the knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried to oppose her, she could, by the sheer force of her personality, bend me to her will.

To my huge relief, just before I disappeared into the witch an angel who looked to be my own age appeared and whispered, “Stay with me, and you will be o.k.” I did, and we watched together as a gust of wind carried the witch away. I haven’t had that dream in a long, long time, but I remember with gratitude the heaven-sent angel of my childish rage, who, in the nick of time, flew down and returned me to myself.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Miracle


“And please, God, send me a little brother or sister”: this was the coda that, as a child, I appended to my nightly prayers for years, with no luck. I prayed as I would have prayed for a dog or a kitten--something or someone that I could relate to on my own level, who would stand with me inside the circle of ever-watchful, concerned, loving adults. Someone, especially, who would distract my mother from her intense focus on me. A fellow soldier in the battle for a separate self.

My parents prayed too, but I'm not sure they did anything besides praying and exercising their “conjugal rights,” like consulting a specialist. Or did the fact that I slept in their room until I was in school keep that longed-for second child at bay?

Although openly affectionate with each other, my parents adhered to a Victorian standard of modesty. Until his final illness, I never saw my father even in his robe. When I was still sleeping in their room and he got up in the morning, he would say “Don’t look! I’m going to get dressed now.” By using the plural form of the verb, he was ensuring that I believed that my mother wasn’t allowed to see him naked either. At night, in the dark, I would sometimes hear them whispering, and for a joke I would make whispering noises back at them. But I don’t recall ever hearing anything remotely sexual.

Years passed, and I was exiled to the Murphy bed in my own bedroom down the hall, but still nothing happened sibling-wise. After a while I stopped asking my mother why my prayers went unanswered, but I never stopped praying—not through our four years in Ecuador or our move to Birmingham after that. Then, when we least expected it, my mother got pregnant.

We marveled and rejoiced and gave thanks, but, at four months, my mother miscarried. I remember my father, as he walked out the door to rush her to the hospital, turning to tell me not to look in the bucket that was left in the bathroom, which he had hurriedly covered with the lid of the old-fashioned washing machine tub. I obeyed, and while I was in school the next morning, he buried the baby, a boy, in the backyard.

We all gave up hope then. What, after all, were the chances of another pregnancy after fifteen years of sterility and a miscarriage? Apparently they were excellent because, the year after that, at age forty-two, my mother got pregnant again. We held our breath and prayed hard for nine months, and this time my sister, the long-awaited miracle, was born, and all was well.

I had just turned sixteen, and far from being embarrassed, as teenagers are said to be, by this scandalous evidence of sex among the elderly, I was thrilled. Even though she wasn’t the companion I had prayed for, I loved the strangeness of this new creature, and the disruption she created in the household. I peered at my sister with the same intense curiosity as I had watched the chickens and rabbits of my grandparents’ farm—why did she cry every evening when the sun went down? Were her early smiles the real thing? What made her clench her fists and pull up her knees when she cried?

I threw myself fervently into the diaper-changing and bottle-washing routines. I longed to feed the baby, but my mother jealously guarded that function.  I wondered at her anxiety that my sister, born at a vigorous seven pounds, would starve to death if she didn’t finish her bottle at every feeding. I was aghast when she pinched her tiny nose to force open her mouth so she could insert the nipple. Surely a baby knew when she’d had enough? It was my first consciously critical look at my mother’s parenting style.

“Weren’t you jealous?” people ask me when they hear the story. Alas, no. Jealousy would have implied a shift in my mother’s attention away from me. But my mother was perfectly capable of continuing to scrutinize my face, my posture, my dress, my sleep habits, my tone of voice, and the state of my soul while she held my sister in her arms. My sister and I were, in fact, two only children, and although my prayers had been answered in the literal sense—I now had a sibling—I was still without the fellow soldier I had longed for in the guerrilla wars against my mother.

But if I didn’t gain a comrade, I did reap other benefits from my sister’s late arrival. All the diaper-changing, bottle-washing, and babysitting I did from ages sixteen until my parents finally loosened their grip and let me leave for graduate school at twenty-one stood me in excellent stead when I had my own children in my mid-twenties.

For one thing, despite the prevailing ethos, I was determined to breast feed them, having had enough of washing and sterilizing bottles and mixing formula during my teenage years. For another, having carried a baby on my hip while I myself was still growing, I had somehow learned to trust that a healthy infant is a sturdy creature, not likely to keel over and expire without warning. Although I had my share of maternal anxieties, compared to the perennial jitters of the other young mothers around me, I felt relaxed and free to enjoy my babies.

My sister is closer in age to my daughters than to me. She and I grew up not only in different eras but in different countries and with different languages. But despite all those differences, when we speak she often shocks me by saying something that could only have come from the lips of one of my mother’s daughters.
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Bisou at Seventy


My little red Cavalier, Bisou, just turned seventy in dog years, which makes her almost my age. How did she get there so fast? Every day I scan her for signs of aging, as I do myself.

She sleeps more than she used to, and she only occasionally gets the zoomies, which in her youth were her default mode. Her hearing is failing. Unlike me, however, she doesn’t have recourse to hearing aids, nor to cataract surgery, although her eyes are growing cloudy, and if she were human she would be worried about driving at night.

We both languish in temperatures over 75F, so we take our walks early in the morning or after sundown. When I see her panting and looking haggard, I start to wane myself, and we head home, where, after extracting burrs and seed pods from her fabulous “feathers,” I give her an ice cube to chew while I rub one on my pulse points.

 I worry about her teeth. Despite daily brushings, she’s had to have several pulled, and for her, dental implants are not an option. So far her muscles and joints are holding up, and she leaps on and off the furniture with relative abandon, but for how long? And when her hips start acting up, will I get her a hip replacement, to match my own? Although this surgery is available for dogs, I doubt that I’ll put her through it.

She was such a wild puppy! At nine weeks, no bigger than a cantaloupe, she would entice my two German Shepherds, Wolfie and Lexi,to chase her. She had a much tighter turning radius than they did, and she calculated her chances of escape to a nicety. If worst came to worst she would dash under a broccoli plant—the super-obedient  Shepherds, who had been taught never to set foot in the garden, could be counted on to come to a screeching halt at the edge.

But if they did catch her, she had perfected what I called the “omelette flip,” turning on her back and exposing her defenseless little belly, which would instantly disarm the big dogs.

Inside the house, she flew from sofa to windowsill to coffee table. One day, chasing one of the Shepherds, she tumbled down our steep staircase. I rushed to pick up what I expected to be her lifeless body, but she was already at the other end of the house, pursuing her prey.

One of her pastimes was to get the ever-patient Wolfie to open his mouth wide enough so she could stick her head inside.

I  know that he looks ferocious, but it was all her idea. And this is how they looked after she’d finally gotten her wish:

For five years now, she and I have been doing weekly therapy visits at the nursing wing of the retirement community where we live. Bisou’s job is to stare soulfully into the residents’ eyes while they pet her and reminisce about their own long-gone dogs.

The people we visit are usually sitting in recliners or wheel chairs, and because Bisou worries about falling off their lap, I end up kneeling on the floor, holding her up so the resident can reach to pet her. Getting up off the floor has become more and more challenging, so last week, the staff member who accompanies us on our rounds showed up with a small stool for me to sit on. I felt like a medieval queen that day, walking the halls with a page following behind, carrying my seat.

Back home after each visit, Bisou and I fling ourselves down on the bed, physically and emotionally exhausted. We are not what we once were. In my files there is a detailed Advance Directive that I hope will avoid the prolongation of my final days. When Bisou’s time comes, however, she’ll have to rely on me to know when to end her suffering. I hope I’ll be able to serve her well.

Is Bisou my last dog? If she lives an exceptional five more years (Cavaliers, though small, are not a long-lived breed), I will be nearing my ninth decade when she dies. A puppy will be out of the question. Perhaps a tiny dog, one as ancient as I, might do. Or maybe I should content myself with the cat.

Do I want to even think about this stuff? Of course not. But it is the task of this life stage to learn to look unblinkingly at matters that, only a decade ago, seemed abstract and far away. To reflect about death, my own and the dog’s, and then take her with me into the shadowy woods, hoping for a glimpse of the fox--that is the work that occupies me these days.