Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life Before Plastic

When the first factory-made men’s shirts arrived from America to Quito, Ecuador in the late 1950s, they came in clear plastic bags. I don’t know which of my classmates first realized the potential of the bags as ultra-modern, super-cool book carriers, but when she showed up in school with her books neatly encased in one of those bags, we all longed for the day when we too could discard our hand-tooled leather satchels and replace them with plastic bags.

When my mother finally bought one of those shirts, she let me have the bag. I remember carefully sliding my books and notebooks into it, and admiring the effect of my school things neatly contained by a material that, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, simultaneously protected and revealed them.

But my plastic bag was as fragile as the glass slipper, and after a while the corners of my books made holes in it. I didn’t much care, however, because by then my parents and I were packing our suitcases for our new home in the land of plastic, America.

Before those bags, for the first thirteen years of my life, in Spain and later in Ecuador, I had lived a plastic-free existence. The objects that surrounded me were made of wood, metal, glass, stone, wool, cotton, clay, paper, straw, rubber, or celluloid.

Other than paper, very little was ever thrown away, and objects like the red clay pan in which the maid washed the dishes, or the long bag of unbleached cotton in which she brought the bread home from the bakery, had been around since before my birth, and I thought of them as sort of second-class members of the family.

Other than as containers for dried flower arrangements, who uses baskets anymore? But all through my childhood the eggs, almonds, cherries and sausages that my grandmother shipped to Barcelona weekly from her farm came by train in a deep two-handled wicker basket covered with burlap, and both basket and burlap were piously preserved and returned to her by that same train.

When my mother went to the fish market she carried a flatter basket, its handle looped over her arm. I had a basket of my own, a smaller version of my mother’s.
I loved the fishwives, goddesses who sat enthroned above their displays, wearing blood-spattered white aprons decorated with broad bands of lace.

Fish of all sizes and colors, squid, octopuses, mussels and clams were arranged mandala-like on round wicker trays, and gleamed as brightly as the rose window of a gothic cathedral. After my mother had made her choice, the peixatera would wrap up for me a single iridescent blue sardine, to carry home in my own little basket.

The Mediterranean of my childhood was crammed with fish, one of the few reliable bounties in those hardscrabble, post-civil war years. Now it, like the rest of the waters on the planet, is having the life choked out of it by millions of tons of plastic—fish-ensnaring, habitat-poisoning, indestructible plastic, most of it in the form of plastic bags.

The plastic bags that had seemed so rare and precious to my schoolmates and me in 1958 have become the banner of environmental destruction. Things must change, and soon. In the words of Joanna Macy, “While the agricultural revolution took centuries, and the industrial revolution took generations, this ecological revolution has to happen within a matter of a few years.”  (quoted by Richard Rohr)

The scope of the disaster is so enormous that I often want to just give up. But if optimism is the only moral choice, then I must act as if my efforts count. So in my own small battle for the survival of the planet, I keep my flag—a well-worn New Yorker canvas bag—in the back of the car, and proudly fly it when I walk into a store.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Passionate Cursive

Life of my heart, the only woman I have ever kissed, I want to kneel at your feet forever… my 28-year-old father writes.

A stack of letters between my parents has lately come into my hands. The first letter dates from 1941, at the very start of their courtship, when he is her violin teacher, and the last is probably from 1953, the year before we leave Spain for Ecuador.

Between those two dates there are dozens of letters, most of them written by my father in Barcelona during the times my mother is at her parents’ farm in the country. But during their courtship he writes even while they are both in the city and he sees her every day. He walks her home from the university and then goes to his parents’ apartment, finds a quiet corner and pours out his adoration on paper (goddess of my dreams, star of my firmament, joy of my life…).

The next day he meets her at the usual place. “When I would see him coming,” my mother once told me, “I always looked at his breast pocket, to see if there was a letter peeking out.”

There usually was, and these and the letters that he wrote during their times apart make for overwhelming reading. The first time I plowed through them, I had to take breaks, because their intensity made me gasp.

Does anybody still write love letters like these (adorable angel, without you the city is a desert, gray and dead, and I wander the streets like a soul in torment…)? Her beautiful hair, the soft skin of her cheeks, her hands, her eyes, her sublime spirit have kindled in him a flame that will never be extinguished…With his music and her love, he tells her over and over, he needs neither wealth nor fame to be the happiest man on earth.

In letter after letter, my father’s elegant handwriting unfolds across the page like a visual melody. How can these harmonious loops and strokes, these impeccably parallel lines, hold so much ardor?

My mother’s letters—there are several in the collection—match his in intensity, but the writing is often illegible. Sometimes the handwriting leans forward, others backward, and the words stretch out or bunch irregularly on the page, propelled by the changing rhythms of her feelings. 

But my musician father was accustomed to containing his emotions within the boundaries of a certain form, and even in the transports of amorous passion, his pen-holding fingers kept a steady beat. Which is why, reading his letters almost a century later, I can feel his young heart, beating in my hands.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Paleo Nights

In tribes who still live much like our Paleolithic ancestors, people don’t sleep through the night. Soon after dark, they climb into their hammocks in the smoky communal hut and fall asleep, then get up a couple of hours later to add wood to the fire, nurse babies, or make more babies. Then they go to sleep again.

Some researchers maintain that the concept of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an artifact of the post-Edison era, an expectation that leads to frustration, anxiety…and insomnia.

I used to be a sleep athlete. Once my head hit the pillow, or the headrest of the car or the airplane seat, I was asleep within seconds. But those few seconds were so delicious that I used to wish I could prolong them. And waking up in the morning I would regret that during all those hours of lovely sleep I had been, well, asleep.

A memory: I am seven years old and getting over a bad case of measles. The doctor tells my mother that she needs to get me out of Barcelona and into the country to breathe fresh air and regain the kilos I have lost. So in spring, in the middle of the school year, my mother packs our suitcase, we kiss my father goodbye, and we take the train to my grandparents’ farm.

I have many reasons for rejoicing, being away from my scary German nuns and my even scarier classmates. I can step out of the farmhouse and, without having to hold anyone’s hand, cross the courtyard, stop to pat the chained up Irish setter who is only let loose in hunting season, then turn the iron ring that unlatches the heavy, weathered wooden door, and take myself for a walk on the dusty road that borders the wheat field.

But the best memory of those weeks is the orxata d’ametlles * that my mother brings me in bed at dawn. This super-rich almond milk takes time and muscle to prepare. First the hard, pitted shells of the almonds, harvested the preceding fall from my grandparents’ trees, have to be cracked with a hammer. My mother or perhaps my grandmother then blanches the almonds, slips off their skins one by one, grinds them in a mortar, strains them through an old linen napkin, and seasons the resulting liquid with cinnamon and a little lemon zest.

At first light, my mother glides into the bedroom and wakes me. With my eyes half closed, I slurp the orxata through a straw—a real straw from the haystack, yellow and shiny and vaguely redolent of summer grass. The orxata, sweet, thick and a bit floury, feels like a dream in my mouth.

But better even than the lingering flavor of almonds is my mother pushing me back down onto the mattress, pulling up the covers, and tiptoeing out of the room. This  allows me to savor, twice in a single night, the pleasure of falling sleep.

The  orxata did its work, my mother and I returned to Barcelona, and those dawn interludes became a thing of the past. For decades after that, except for the short periods when I had babies to nurse, I slept for eight, ten, or twelve hours at a stretch, every single night.

But not any more.

Now I have to coax sleep to come to me, as if it were some shy wild creature. I practice state-of-the art sleep hygiene. I go to bed at the same time every night. I take a couple of herbal supplements for their real or placebo effects. The bedroom is a temple of Morpheus, dark and on the cool side. There are no TVs or laptops or phones--just a slumbering spouse, the cat Telemann, Bisou, the dog, and me, counting my breaths.

Sometimes my strategies work, but often they don’t. Some nights my yet-to-be-replaced left hip hurts, and I have to keep changing position. Some nights nothing hurts, and I still can’t fall asleep.
Eventually there’s nothing for it but to get up, find my glasses, and sneak out of the room. I pad to my study and turn on the lamp. Through the window, I can see the moon shining on the snow. The house is very quiet.

Now what?

Soon Telemann and Bisou join me, and then it gets a bit crowded in my narrow recliner. After an hour or so of reading or staring at the moon I lead the way back to the bedroom. Telemann and Bisou go back to sleep, and so do I.

What is so terrible about this? Why can’t I learn to like my weird new nights?

I resent it that sleep, once reliable as a well-trained dog, no longer comes when called. I miss the blessed confidence that, no matter what was going on in my life, I could blot it out by turning out the light and pulling the covers up to my chin, consigning my anxiety/nervousness/sadness to temporary oblivion. Sleep was a harmless but effective drug, always within reach, one that didn’t need a doctor to authorize refills.

What, I wonder, did my Paleo ancestor do—the one who wasn’t up nursing or making babies? Did she fret about the wolves howling in the distance? Did she revisit old sorrows, guilts, and regrets and wish that she could make them vanish by going back to sleep?

Or, being a wise old woman with a touch of early Zen in her philosophy, did she throw another log on the fire, pull her blanket over her shoulders, and stay present with her feelings as the moon moved across the sky?

*orxata d’ametlles (horchata de almendras in Spanish) is the Catalan term. You can find a version for contemporary kitchens here.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Don't Think About Tiger

“Don’t focus on finding a man,” old self-help books used to advise husband-hunting women. “Instead, get involved in something: take an evening course, join a bird watchers group, volunteer. And when you least expect it, the love of your life will appear.”

Lately I’ve been coming across similar advice, albeit on topics other than finding a man.

Like everyone I know who has tried to meditate, I often feel frustrated at my seeming failure to get anywhere. What is the point, I wonder, of sitting day after day with aching hips and knees while my mind compiles grocery lists and resurrects old forgotten gripes? When will I finally see results, find peace of mind, achieve even a dumbed-down version of enlightenment?

 Here is Thomas Merton on how to approach meditation (which he refers to as contemplation): “[A] law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.” (Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 2)

As with finding a mate, it looks like the only way to reach a meditative or contemplative state is not to go at it head-on, with focus and singleness of purpose--not, in other words, in the way that we were taught at school. Rather the trick seems to be in a sideways approach, not looking the thing directly in the eye but waiting quietly for it to come to you, sort of how you might entice a wild animal.

Speaking of wild animals, I found an astounding example of this “pursuit by indirection” in a Nature documentary about the rare, elusive, and endangered Siberian tiger.

Sooyong Park, a Korean photographer, lived five years in the far eastern forests of Russia filming the tigers. He spent as long as seven months at a time in complete solitude, hunkered in a four-foot hole he had dug in the ground and roofed with planks, or up on a tree blind. He subsisted on rice, nuts and salt, in -30F temperatures, as he waited endlessly for the tigers to appear.

At one point, having gone eighty days without even a glimpse of a tiger, he became entranced with the beauty of the falling snow and started filming that instead. And that is when not one but three tigers—a mother and her cubs--appeared.

Towards the end of the video, a biologist who is also hoping to film the tigers asks Sooyong Park for advice.  Here is Park’s response:

“Don’t think about tiger!
 Only hear,
feel the Nature.
And then maybe tiger come….”

We each long for our own tiger. But perhaps, instead of crashing through the forest after it in the time-honored American way, we could try waiting patiently, focusing on our daily tasks, and paying attention to what is before us.

And then maybe tiger come.

(Park’s five years in the forest, which left him so weak and wasted that he could barely walk, yielded unprecedented footage of Siberian tigers in the wild. You can see it here.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Birds And Cats

First, a confession: I am the previous owner of several outdoor cats. I believed I was doing the right thing. My cats were neutered. They had food, shelter, and regular vet visits. They were free to climb trees and chase butterflies. I loved to watch them stalking in the garden like miniature tigers.

When the first one, black Grendel, came back from one of his nights on the town with one ear and half his face torn off, I rushed him to the vet, who managed to sew him back together. Soon after that, Grendel went away again and never came back.

The next one, an orange kitten named Gato, somehow broke his leg while playing in the garden. The vet put it in a cast. When the cast came off, Gato went exploring, and we never saw him again.

Mitsou was an exquisite chocolate-point Siamese. Her head and face were round, a throwback to the days before anorexic-looking, sunken-cheeked cats reminiscent of runway models became fashionable. In love with her looks, and tired of losing cats, I kept her indoors, where she ruled the household, especially the dogs, for seventeen years.

I adopted Pascal, a black and white kitten who had been abandoned by his mother, before his eyes opened. He had to be fed every two hours, so I put him in a cardboard box and took him to the office. After each feeding I would take him to the bathroom where I would enact a mother cat’s attentions by wiping his nether regions with a washcloth dipped in warm water.

As Pascal grew, and grew, so did his affection for me. I could not sit down without huge, rangy Pascal flinging himself on top of me, purring and kneading and drooling, eyes half-closed in bliss. If I had left the back door open, I doubt that he would have chosen to leave my side. But I didn’t. Pascal was an indoor cat.

But then we moved to a suburb of DC and I had a long commute, which meant that we had to install a dog door so the dog could let himself out to the fenced-in yard during the day, which also meant that Pascal became an indoor-outdoor cat.

He had a grand time, and became an expert hunter of moles, something that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him. His record was nine moles in a single evening, which he laid in a row next to my lawn chair while I sat watching the sunset.

But within six months he was dead--poisoned, we think, by licking antifreeze off somebody’s driveway.

You see where this is going?

While many an indoor cat lives as long as twenty years, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is two to three years. Needless to say, my present top-predator-in-residence, Telemann, lives strictly indoors.

But Telemann’s safety is only half the reason why I keep him in the house. The other half is the welfare of the innocent chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and woodpeckers who come to our feeders.

There is no doubt in my mind that, despite his exquisite diet of raw turkey, given five minutes in the yard sweet Telemann would turn into a bird-killing machine. According to the Bird Conservancy, in the U.S. cats kill approximately 2.4 BILLION birds a year. This makes cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds (human-caused because we’re the ones who let the cats outside).

With a pane of glass between them, however, Telemann and my birds coexist peacefully. It didn’t take long for the birds to figure out that the kitten swatting at them just inches away from the feeder was prevented by some invisible magic from catching them.

For Telemann, the birds outside the window are just another joy in the joy-filled life that we strive to provide for him. When they are eating, he leaps from windowsill to windowsill to get the best view, looking fierce and waving his tail like a tiger on the hunt.

And then there are the squirrels, gray like him and almost his size, bold enough to “touch” noses through the glass. They are the big game, the zebras and wildebeest of Telemann’s savannas.

Is Telemann frustrated because he can’t crunch on the neck of a titmouse, or sever a squirrel’s spine? Probably. It is in Telemann’s nature to enjoy killing things, just as it is in mine to enjoy eating the flesh of lobsters boiled alive. But I don’t, and I survive the deprivation, and so does he. Telemann and I already have almost too much pleasure in our lives.

But the birds, those little harmless beautiful bits of Nature, are threatened everywhere by the loss of woods and fields and bugs and wildflowers. They suffer from sudden and bizarre weather events. And they are eaten by the small tigers that we love. They need all the help they can get. 

So Telemann does his bit by staying inside, and I do mine every morning, when I clean his litter box.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Camels, Not Reindeer

In my Catalan childhood Christmas was a time of manger scenes (the manger left empty until midnight Mass, when the long-awaited  Baby was placed in it); ancient carols (some of them funny, having to do with misbehaving shepherds); and my favorite dessert, turrons d’Alicant, the almond nougat bars that required a hammer to break them into individual portions.

Gifts were out of the question until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, el dia dels Reis. The night before, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar guided by a star came swaying atop their camels to leave gifts on the balconies of apartment houses all over Barcelona.

As the days after Christmas passed—the feast of the Holy Innocents, those poor babies slaughtered by paranoid Herod; the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr--my anticipation grew. It was the culmination of a months’ long pregnancy-like state, which began every autumn with my spotting the doll of my dreams in the window of a toy shop.

Like a lover, I would bring up this doll in every conversation, point her out to my mother whenever we passed the toy store, and meditate on her every night before going to sleep. Finally, towards the end of Advent, I would write my letter to the three Kings, humbly imploring them to bring me my longed-for child.

After that, it was out of my hands, and all I could do was pray and wait until the night of January 5th, when the ceremony of “the laying of the trays” took place.

There were two of these trays, one for the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, and one for our own balcony. First, we went to my grandparents.  After my grandmother finished entreating my father not to kill himself by working so hard; my father’s younger sisters asked his opinion about some musical performance they’d just heard on the radio; and everyone had a glass of sherry “because it was such a cold night,” I was buttoned into my stiff winter coat and my grandfather flung open the balcony.

My father would lead me out on the balcony and point toward the heavens. “You see that bright star up there? That, I am almost certain, is the star of the Three Kings. It is especially bright to help the camels find our balconies tonight.”

My little black-clad grandmother (she had just lost her eldest son to cancer and malnutrition following the Spanish Civil War) would totter in on her high heels, bearing the tray, which held a dish with three pieces of nougat for the Magi and another with three leaves of lettuce for the camels. She handed me the tray, I set it down carefully on the balcony floor, and we all knelt while my grandfather led us in an Our Father.

Back in our apartment, my parents and I laid out another tray and, after another Our Father, I was sent to bed. There I would lie in a fever of excitement only equaled by what I experienced the night before my daughters’ births. Would the Reis really come, and would I find my doll, my child, on one of those trays in the morning?

Despite the anticipation, I always managed to fall asleep. But one year—I must have been five or six—I awoke in the dark and saw, standing at the foot of my bed, none other than Balthasar, el rei moro, the Moorish king, the most exotic of the three. He had a thin face and dark brown skin, and wore a turban and robe of a fine, scintillating green material. I still remember the look of otherworldly kindness in his eyes.

Although my night visitation only happened once, in the morning there was always the doll. One year it was a rubber doll with a hole in her mouth and another between her thighs. I could pour water out of a tiny baby bottle into the mouth and then experience the thrill of changing diapers. Another year it was a Black doll, dressed in ruffled white organdy. And one year there were two dolls, Pituco and Pituca, with arms and legs made of a spongy material that could be bent in all directions.
Those dolls were, without exception, infant or toddler dolls on which I could vent my maternal instincts and practice for what everyone anticipated would be my future career. If someone had handed me a doll with breasts and hips and feet in tiny high-heeled shoes I wouldn’t have known what to do with her. The last thing that Barbie looks like she needs is a mother.

The year I turned eleven we were living in Ecuador. That Christmas there were no grandparents, no turrons or manger scenes.  No laying of trays on January 5th. I was growing faster than my mother could let down the hems of my dresses, and puberty was around the corner. My mother thought it was time to have a talk.

 “You do realize,” she said, “that the gifts of the Magi actually come from the parents?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know. Of course.”

But I was appalled. Appalled that that world of ceremony, mystery, and feverish anticipation--and also the world in which I was la nena, the center of a watchful, loving circle of grandparents and aunts and uncles--had suddenly vanished forever.

 And I was embarrassed, of course, that I was eleven years old and starting to grow breasts and my mother had had to break the news about the Magi. But I was a backward kid, reluctant to grow up. I wonder now if my mother felt sad to dash my illusions, or if she was irritated by my stubborn naivety.

Either way, she did what she had to do, and I’m grateful she spoke up. But around this time of year I always wonder what it would be like to wake up in the night and once again see the Moorish King standing at the foot of my bed.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Bisou in Winter

It was 8F the other morning, so before taking my little red Cavalier Bisou out for a walk I dressed her for the weather. By the time I had zipped her into her coat and stuffed her limp feet into her booties and fastened the Velcro straps around her ankles and loosened them so she wouldn’t get gangrene and then tightened them again so they’d stay on, twenty minutes had elapsed.

Once we got outside, she felt so encumbered by all that gear that she just wanted to go back indoors.

This is why on days when it is too cold/snowy/icy/rainy I exercise Bisou indoors. It is one of the  joys of having a small dog: you can give her a real workout even in a space as small as our cottage. After fifteen minutes of running and jumping after her ball, Bisou considers herself well entertained.

I get a little workout too, doing forward bends to pick up the ball and perfecting my throws with both right and left arms, avoiding hitting the glass-fronted china cabinet and my spouse’s head. And the cat Telemann, who if Bisou and I went for a walk would be left staring forlornly out the window, also gets a workout during these sessions.

Sometimes he runs after the ball along with Bisou. Or he perches on the back of the sofa and bats at the ball as it flies past him. But what he likes best is to hide behind one of the side doors. Then, as Bisou runs past him, he leaps out like Nureyev and executes a grand jeté over her back.

When we’re done, Bisou flings herself panting on the sofa, where I join her with my book. Soon we hear a thunderous purr and Telemann is upon us, literally, kissing and nosing and kneading both of us until he finally dozes off.

These are dark days, in more ways than one, but the weight of two contented animals on my lap grounds me and keeps me from obsessing fruitlessly about the state of the planet. 2017 has not been an encouraging year, and its waning moments are as soul bruising as its beginning.

How to get through this bleak midwinter?  Let's try to be kind and generous, and then let us find comfort in the good things at hand: the chickadee at the suet, the geranium on the sill, and the certain knowledge that tomorrow the earth, bless her, will once again tilt her face toward the sun.

Happy solstice, everyone!