Wednesday, October 16, 2019


 In Spain, when I was growing up in the 1950s, women wore mantillas to church. These were gorgeous embroidered affairs, white for unmarried girls and black for married women. Anchored by a hat pin, the mantilla was shaped like a rounded triangle, with the tip grazing the forehead and the two sides hanging down over the collar bones. Before the age of reason, which was held by the church to be seven, instead of mantillas little girls wore small round doilies on top of their head.

Some blame Saint Paul (“any woman who prays…with her head unveiled disgraces her head”), while others blame the early fathers of the church for making women wear veils in church. It is easy in retrospect to rage against Saint Paul and his cronies, who regarded head coverings as a mark of submission. At the time, however, we thought of the mantilla simply as a gender-related sign of respect: men had to uncover their heads, and we had to cover ours. Besides, with its scalloped edges framing the face, and the embroidered flowers and leaves both concealing and revealing the hair beneath, the mantilla made almost any woman look mysterious and alluring.

Nevertheless, we took the head-covering issue seriously. If a woman on her way back from the bakery wanted to stop for a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament but had left her mantilla at home, she could throw a scarf or even a sweater over her head. Otherwise, she had to skip the visit altogether (God, we were told, understood these things, and would look kindly upon her intention).

Another ostensible reason for the mantilla was to prevent the men of the congregation from being distracted by the lust-inducing sight of female hair. I found this odd, but then you never knew about men. It was their fault after all that, in addition to the mantilla, women had to wear stockings in church, and sleeves long enough to cover their elbows. Still, even granted their penchant for getting aroused by seemingly harmless objects, I figured that if I had been a man I would have found the elaborate, semi-transparent mantilla way more intriguing than a pair of braids or a head of permed curls.

When I arrived at my Catholic high school in Alabama, I saw that girls, though well past the age of reason, wore not mantillas but “chapel veils,” exactly like the little doily that I had cast aside in favor of the more grownup style after my First Communion. And it wasn’t just high school girls who wore these, but also the adult women who filled the pews with their husbands and kids on Sundays. Some ladies wore padded Alice bands with little stiff, dotted veils pulled down coyly over their noses. Others, having dashed into church on the spur of the moment, simply covered their head with a Kleenex, and secured it with a bobby pin.

I interpreted this nonchalant attitude towards head coverings as a sign of American progressivism, which I was all for. But I continued to wear my no-nonsense Spanish mantilla because I thought it more flattering than the doilies. And if it momentarily distracted from his prayers some hapless boy my age, well, so much the better.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, those tiny chapel veils, perched atop the teased and sprayed, helmet-like hairdos of the time, looked more absurd than ever. By the end of the decade, what with the surging feminist movement and the liberalization of the church after Vatican II, chapel veils and emergency Kleenexes went the way of stockings and garter belts. But the disappearance of head coverings signaled a deeper exodus. Like many of my generation, I put away my missal and my mantilla, and left the church forever. Or so I thought.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Swimming Lessons

My mother believed that for a girl to make her way in society she should, in addition to speaking a foreign language or two, know how to swim and play tennis. In the Catalan village where she had grown up in the 1920s and 30s nobody did any of those things, much less taught them. She had visions of country clubs and elegant house parties in my future, and she wanted to spare me the embarrassment of sitting dry and bored by the side of the pool, or being unable to return a kick serve on the tennis court.

One summer, while we were living in Quito, she heard that a former Olympic swimmer, señor Otero, was offering a girls-only swimming course, and she signed me up. This was just before I developed breasts, while I could still squeeze my twelve-year-old body into my childish swimsuit, a cotton affair with tiny pink roses on a white background..

In the dressing room, as I struggled to cram my thick braids into a white rubber swimming cap, I looked around at my fellow learners. These were no girls! They must have been in their late teens or early twenties, but to me they seemed practically as old as my mother, with fat white thighs and bathing suits that had built-in containers for their breasts.

At an altitude of over nine-thousand feet, Quito’s temperature year-round hovers in the  60s. The pool where we would learn to swim--“like fishes, guaranteed!” according to señor Otero--was outdoors, under a sky that in those days was untroubled by pollution, and with a view of the green slopes of Pichincha, the lively volcano that presides over the city. The pool was unheated.

Before we were allowed to get our feet wet, señor Otero—balding, ripped, and wearing a  tiny bathing suit—dragged out a number of narrow wooden benches and arranged them around the pool. We were each assigned a bench, and told to lie on our stomachs as senor Otero threaded his way among our recumbent forms, explaining the scissors kick and the crawl stroke.

That exercise over, señor Otero led us to the deep end of the pool. “Señoritas, al agua!” he yelled, motioning for us to jump in. The idea was that we would eventually surface, turn on our backs, and practice floating. There was much shrieking as bodies hit the chilly water, but one by one my classmates emerged from the depths and began to float. But I, stunned by the jets of water forced up my nose by the dive, my muscles turned to stone by the cold, just couldn’t do it. Every time I turned on my back, my feet and then my legs, my pelvis, and the rest of me would gradually and inexorably sink.

When señor Otero blew his end-of-class whistle I pulled my soaking-wet braids out of my swimming cap and got shivering back into my clothes. At home, I lay in my darkened room all afternoon while pool water drained out of my sinuses.

Twice a week, for the rest of the summer, I went to swimming class. I suffered through the back stroke, the crawl, the side stroke, the breast stroke and the butterfly. I also suffered from a kind of embarrassment that I had never experienced before: that of being in a group of half-undressed women presided over by an all-but-naked man. I was probably the most naïve twelve-year-old in the western hemisphere, but there was something deeply discomfiting about señor Otero prancing among us, telling us what to do with our bodies, and sometimes helping us do it.

Whether it was because of embarrassment, the mercilessly cold water, performance anxiety, or painful sinuses, while my classmates mastered one stroke after another, I could barely float. And summer was almost over.

Señor Otero’s course would culminate in a demonstration before a crowd of parents, relatives, and boyfriends, and would consist of each student swimming the length of the pool in the stroke of her choice. For me, señor Otero made an exception: I would only be required to float across the width of the pool.

One by one my plump, pale classmates dove in and, using the crawl, back stroke, breast stroke, side stroke and even the butterfly, emerged triumphant at the far end. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and flung myself into the frigid water. I stretched my arms out by my ears and tried to stay horizontal. I didn’t have far to go, but when the cement wall was almost at my fingertips, I felt something bump my hip. It was the head of señor Otero, who, not wanting to have a student drown in front of her parents, had dived in to save me.

A couple of weeks later, my parents went with some friends to El Tingo, a thermal springs resort south of Quito, and they took me along. It was a weekday and the place was practically empty. While the grownups were eating lunch I got into my bathing suit and, ignoring the swimming cap, entered the pool. The sun shone down on me, and in the warm water every muscle in my body softened.

Nobody was watching. I lay on my back and floated a while, squinting against the glare. I felt like I was dissolving in the glorious warmth that enveloped me, and dreamily, without thinking about it, I began to do the back stroke. When my arms hit the cement wall, I realized that I had made it across the entire length of the pool. I turned over and tried the crawl—nothing could be easier! The breast stroke and side stroke were a snap, and I even managed the fearsome butterfly.

My mother was delighted with my sudden metamorphosis into a swimmer. But when it came to tennis, luck deserted us. To this day, whenever I see a ball hurtling in my direction, I turn and run the other way.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mediocre Meditator's Prayer

Dear Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe,

Here I am again, on my cushion, chair, or mat,
with my breath, and bones, and heart.
Oh, and my monkey mind, too.

Already the macaques are leaping through the forest of my neurons, and I haven’t even found my breath yet.
Sigh. Right hip hurts a bit.

What am I doing here, on this cushion, chair, or mat?
What am I looking for?

Wrong! I’m not supposed to look for anything.
But a bit of peace wouldn’t come amiss right now,
Goddess/God/ Ground of Being/Universe.

Now the monkeys are throwing fruit.
Gently let them go. Breathe. Is it time to get up yet?
None of this makes sense.
Focus on the heart instead.

How long have I been doing this? I don’t mean just today, but in my life.
Years and years, but not consistently, not faithfully enough, obviously.
Or I’d be better at it.

Don’t judge. Breathe. Accept.
I can’t stop the screeching monkeys
or send blood to my left foot, which has fallen asleep.
The only thing I can do is to keep showing up on my cushion, chair, or mat.

So I do, mostly,
Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Enlightenment at the Vet's

Spent half of Sunday last week at the emergency vet clinic with Bisou. As animals came in they were triaged, and since Bisou was not in dire straits (her problem had to do with anal glands), we had to wait. And wait. And while we waited I fretted.

As often happens with humans as well as dogs, now that we were at the clinic Bisou seemed less bothered than she had been at home. She’d had this anal gland issue before, and I knew what to expect. So what was I doing here, waiting for what seemed like an eternity? Couldn’t I make her comfortable with warm water compresses and take her to our regular vet in the morning?

Meanwhile, cats arrived yowling in their carriers. Energetic young dogs (not much apparently wrong with them) leaped and twisted at the end of their leads. Bisou looked around and was entertained. I pulled out my Kindle and went back to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of the best novels ever. You may have seen the BBC adaptation—it’s about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, are also among the most depressing books I’ve ever read, having to do with man’s (and woman’s) cupidity, cruelty, and stupidity.

As compelling as Mantel’s writing was, I couldn’t get into it. I kept wondering whether sitting hour after hour with a dog who wasn’t anywhere near death’s door was the right thing for me to be doing. Was I being silly, alarmist, absurd? Would the emergency vet laugh at me?

There were other things I should be doing. I had agreed to join a group to write letters to people in Arizona that afternoon, urging them to register to vote. What if, as a result of my failure to show up, half a dozen Arizonans didn’t vote, and my party lost the election? You know what they say about a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon… (on second thought, there probably aren’t any butterflies left in the Amazon).

Worst of all, I felt sure that any intelligent adult in my situation should be able to discern the right thing to do: whether to wait as long as it took for the vet to see Bisou, or pick up the leash and head out the door. So while in Mantel’s novel one side burned heretics at the stake and the other beheaded, hanged and disemboweled those who refused to go along with Henry’s wishes, I flogged myself with the notion that, whatever the right thing might be, I was failing to do it.

Two hours passed. Bisou was getting antsy, and I could neither read nor relax. And then out of the blue I had an insight: I had always lived with the assumption that for each situation there was an ideal response, and that it was up to me to figure out what it was.

But what if, I thought, gently moving Bisou’s muzzle out from under her tail, sometimes there isn’t a clear course of action? Perhaps, faced with my stay-or-go dilemma, even the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and Stephen Hawking might have found themselves uncertain about the right decision.

If, like me, you are saddled with perfectionist tendencies, the thought that sometimes there isn’t a right answer will make you uncomfortable. On the other hand, how soothing to the dithering brain the acceptance of uncertainty, with its concomitant absolution from guilt!

Finally Bisou was called, her wound salved, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories dispensed. Back home after our four-hour ordeal, I gave Bisou her meds, applied a warm water compress to her nether regions, and put an e-collar around her neck. I didn’t make it to the letter-writing meeting. If my favored candidate loses in Arizona, I'll be sorry, but I won't flog myself about it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

First Day of School

I started school when I was six, and until I entered that first-grade classroom I cannot remember having been in the presence of another child my age.

The school was run by an order of German nuns who had fled Hitler and come to impart punctuality, discipline, good posture, and the German language to the daughters of the Barcelona élites. It was an expensive school, and my parents would not have been able to afford it if I hadn’t been their only child. But the nuns’ German accents carried a whiff of exoticism that my mother, whose fondness for strange people and places would later lead the family to Ecuador, found irresistible.

That first morning, not just my mother but my father too marked the solemnity of the occasion by walking me to school. As my classmates and I were being marched into the building, I turned for a last look at them. Why weren’t they coming with me? When Schwester Maria showed me my desk, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was in a room without a relative in sight--no parents, aunts, grandparents, or great-uncles and -aunts—just strangers.

I already knew how to read, so that part was no trouble. Nor, unless she addressed me in German, was Schwester Maria a problem, since I was well accustomed to dealing with grownups, whom I usually found to be reasonable and who could be trusted to keep their word. What terrified me were the other girls.

I could make neither heads nor tails of these turbulent midgets, who exhibited none of the courtly manners I was used to from adults. On the very first day, in German class, we were called on to read a list of words: die Mutter, das Mädchen, etc. When it was my turn, all went well until I got to der Vater. Not realizing that in German “v” is pronounced “f,” I gave it the Spanish pronunciation, which, unfortunately, also sounded like the Spanish word for “toilet” (el vater, from “water closet”).

To say “toilet” instead of “father”! What could be more hilarious to a class of six-year-olds, on the first day of school? Instead of calmly correcting me, as my mother or my aunts would have done, my classmates burst into gales of laughter that only stopped when the Schwester rapped on her desk.

But that was nothing compared to the sufferings I experienced during playtime, when my classmates exploded out of the classroom and into the gravel yard, screaming at the top of their voices. Why were they yelling? Why were they running around? What was I supposed to do? I was used to being led and instructed at every step by adults, but here nobody was explaining anything. I had no idea of how to approach the other girls, start a conversation, or join a group.

We all went home for lunch, and when it was time to return to school, I told my mother that I was done. I didn’t like school, and wouldn’t be going back. She answered that of course I had to go, I was a big girl now, etc. I resisted. She tried to take my hand. I grabbed the arms of the rush bottomed chair I was sitting on and held on with all my might. But she pried my fingers loose and I had no choice but, sick at heart and weeping with humiliation, to go down the marble stairs of the apartment house and out on the street, to what felt like my place of execution.

One day I heard a girl ask another “me estás amiga?” (are you my friend? the use of the verb “estar” implying the temporary nature of these friendships). So the next day I gathered my courage and approached one of the more popular girls, the beta if not the alpha of the class.

Me estás amiga? I asked, tremulously. And she answered “no,” flicked her braids, and turned away.

That was it for me on the playground. All during class I dreaded the approach of play period, and all during play period I longed for the bell to ring so I could take refuge at my desk. I did finally find one girl to share the misery of those play periods. She was even shyer than I--the omega of the grade. We didn’t particularly like each other, feeling an obscure contempt for our mutual weaknesses, but we tolerated each other because we had no choice.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, I developed amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” My mother rushed me to the ophthalmologist, who said that the only way to keep me from losing sight in the lazy eye was to cover the good eye with a patch for one year.

This did save my eyesight, but it was disastrous for my social life. One of my more boisterous classmates—bright blue eyes, blond curls, freckles—looked at my patch and screamed, “it’s contagious!” And the whole class squealed and scattered. Fortunately her father, who was a doctor, heard about this and made his daughter apologize, and I shed my leper status.

I spent my school years oscillating between mind-numbing boredom and heart-clenching anxiety. The boredom occurred in the classes that involved reading—History, Spanish, and Religion. Every year, on the first day of school, when the new books were distributed, no matter how hard I tried to control myself I would race through and read them to the end, which left me with nothing to discover for the rest of the year.

The anxiety-producing subjects were German (I never did understand the difference between dative and accusative); arithmetic (my father had no talent for numbers, so my family excused me on the grounds of heredity); handwriting (both my father and his father had exquisite handwriting, so there I was a bit of a disgrace); and handwork (crochet, knitting, and, later, embroidery).

But physical education was the worst. Until I entered first grade I had never thrown a ball or raced another child. My inexperience, combined with poor depth perception caused by my lazy eye, made phys ed. a trial all the way through college.

In grade school, calisthenics, for which we wore knee-length bloomers under our uniform, and which were led by a nun in full habit, was a relief, since I was tolerably good at following precise directions. Also, perhaps thanks to the flexibility I inherited from my double-jointed paternal grandfather, I excelled at forward and backward somersaults. (Since the nun in her long habit was our only phys ed. instructor, I can’t imagine how she demonstrated these.)

As it happened, the subjects that scared me most were taught by nuns (we had lay women, native Spaniards, for the others). However, despite the bitter stories that people often tell about their Catholic education, in my twelve years of Catholic school in three different countries I did not see a single instance of a child being hit or treated in an improper way. There was strict discipline, certainly, but by the same token, even in my co-ed high school we never had to worry about being threatened or harassed by our peers.

Nevertheless, it is true that I was afraid of the German nuns. But I think that that had to do with language. Their Spanish was far from perfect, and when they ran out of patience they ran out of Spanish too. Being scolded or simply instructed to do something quickly (schnell!) by a frowning nun in a foreign language terrified me, so my strategy was to pass unnoticed. At the end of the year I never got awards for academic performance. Depressingly, my prizes were for “buena conducta y aplicación”—in other words, I was well-behaved and did my homework.

The boredom/anxiety ratio shifted over the years. After I felt comfortable understanding and speaking English I grew less anxious and more bored, with the exception of math and phys ed. classes, which continued to mortify me all the way through college.

I am happy to report that my fears of other people disappeared long ago. But sometimes at night, when I think about that first day of school, I can feel once again in my palm the hardness of the arm of the rush-bottomed chair I clung to, and the despair at being fished out of the calm waters of my infancy and flung into the roiling torrent of the world.

Third grade. I'm in the middle row, next to Mater Hilaria. The girl who mocked my eye patch is at the other end of the same row, next to the lay teacher.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


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! 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.