Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Perfectibility


When we lived in Quito, I used to ride the school bus home for lunch. My mother would sit at the table and watch me eat.

“Sit up straight,” she would say, followed by:

“Don’t put your elbows on the table.
Chew your food well. Digestion begins in the mouth.
You’re slouching again.
Don’t scrape your knife on the plate.
And take the hair out of your eyes. I want to see your forehead.
Elbows!
Why are you hunched over?”

At this point, even the afternoon algebra class began to seem appealing. “I have to go now," I would say, getting up, "or I’ll miss my bus.”

“Put your chair back where you found it. Wipe your lips. Fold your napkin. María! (calling the maid) Take the child across the street. Her bus is almost here.” I was almost an inch taller than tiny Indian María, and I have to give her credit for keeping a straight face as she wiped her hands on her apron and walked me across the street.

As justified as my mother’s admonitions were, I did not take them with good grace. The brand-new hormones coursing through my veins, while giving me the external attributes of a woman, were doing nothing to turn me into a lady. Instead, for a last, blessed reprieve, I clung to my childish conviction that I was fine just the way I was.

But my mother was an optimist. No matter how much I resisted her, she was convinced that she would prevail. In fact, it was her duty to prevail. “Do you think I enjoy having to correct you so much?” she would say when I complained about her constant monitoring. “I do not! I would much rather be doing something else, like going for a walk, or reading a book.”  I was skeptical. I couldn’t believe that anybody could devote so much time and energy to something they didn’t enjoy at least a little.

“And your grumbling and protesting,” she went on, “do you think I enjoy that? Don’t you know how much more pleasant my life would be if I let you do as you please? But what would happen if I did? What sort of person would you become?” She would shake her head sadly, indicating that she didn’t have much faith in my future if I were left to my own resources. “No! I am your mother, and it is my sacred duty—sacred, do you hear?—to correct you when I see you doing something wrong. Even if it means that you love me less sometimes. I must put my own feelings aside and do what I know is right, no matter how much pain it brings me.”

This usually shut me up. How could I argue with her sacred duty? How could I complain when she, who loved me more than anything in the world, was willing to sacrifice herself in order to do the right thing? In her youth my mother had studied law, and she brought her best courtroom technique to these confrontations. Like an ill-prepared defense attorney, I capitulated before her prosecutorial skills.

But I had to do something to get her off my back, at least temporarily. If I couldn’t defeat her in argument, I might be able to negotiate with her. So I offered her a deal: I would accept her corrections without complaint every day of the week if she would agree, on Wednesdays at lunch, to let me eat without comment.

To my amazement, she gave in. When Wednesday came around, there was soup for lunch. I tucked my hair behind my ears, bent over the bowl and, as my mother watched in silent disbelief, lapped up the soup like a dog. The soup was hot, and it dribbled down my chin and onto my uniform blouse. There were chick peas and chunks of meat floating around, and it was hard to catch them without using a spoon. It felt disgusting, but I was intent on demonstrating to my mother that she had to respect our deal no matter what, and I persevered until the last drop was gone.

The next Wednesday, assuming that I had made my point, I intended to make full use of my silverware, and simply looked forward to a critique-free meal. But as soon as I picked up my fork my mother said, “I know it’s Wednesday, and I’m not supposed to say anything. But do you realize that your left elbow’s on the table?” I rolled my eyes, dropped the elbow, and continued eating. My mother cleared her throat. I looked up and she pointed silently at my napkin, which I had neglected to place on my lap. The next time she opened her mouth, before she could even speak, I sat up straight.

It was no use, and so I gave up my campaign. For the first time ever, I saw my mother not as someone who, along with my father, stood practically next to God in goodness and omnipotence, but as a woman who was helpless, because of some quirk of her psyche, to quell the urge to polish me until I gleamed like a mirror in which she could see herself.



Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Homesick


 While my mother, immobilized by vertigo, lay stretched like a corpse on the bed in our Manhattan hotel room, my father and I went to the top of the Empire State building. It was the spring of 1954, and we were on a two-day layover on the week-long airplane trip from Barcelona to Quito.

“Why is she sick?” I asked my father as we walked down Fifth Avenue.

“It’s because she’s sad that we left Barcelona,” he said.

Sad! What was there to be sad about? Weren’t we going on a fabulous adventure to South America, one even more thrilling than those of Hernán Cortés, Ponce de León and Francisco Pizarro? And hadn’t my mother, driven to distraction by the monotony of her housewifely existence, been the principal force behind my father’s acceptance of the Ecuadorian government’s invitation to found the country’s first string quartet? There was no room for emotional ambivalence in my ten-year-old heart. I couldn’t understand that my mother, who had wanted to go on this escapade as much as I had, could also feel regret at leaving her family behind.

For the next three years, while we lived in Quito, my mother oscillated between breathless excitement at the exoticism of it all--snow-capped volcanoes! endless jungles! head-hunting tribes!—and elaborate bouts of homesickness.

I never quite understood what was going on with her, but I sensed that the homesick role was hers to play. By contrast, I sought to distinguish myself by adopting a mask of stoicism. Tears and complaints were not for me--I wasn’t a baby anymore, nor was I sentimental, like a woman. I preferred to mimic my father, and leave the tragic persona to my mother.

And yet, how could I not have been homesick? But nobody asked if I was, and when confronted with my mother’s articulate depictions of her nostalgia, I assumed that mine, if it existed, couldn’t hold a candle to hers.

True, I was sheltered by my parents’ reassuring presence. But once the excitement of being in a foreign place wore off and life settled into a routine, how could I not miss the rhythms of my existence in Catalonia, where each month was marked by some festival, its ritual, and its accompanying dessert?

January was the month when the Three Kings brought me presents and we ate the marzipan-stuffed tortell de reis. February 12th was the feast of Saint Eulalia, and my mother bought ensaïmadas from the bakery in my honor. On March 19th, the feast of Saint Joseph, my aunts made crema catalana in celebration of my grandfather.  In April, for Easter, my godmother gave me the mona de Pasqua, a cake topped with chocolate eggs. In May, the month of Our Lady, we ate strawberries. And all summer-long, at my grandparents’ farm, we feasted on melons, peaches, and pears so ripe that their juices ran down my chin and soaked the front of my cotton dress.

All this was gone. And so was the tutelary presence of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, who had revolved like planets around my sunny childhood, and whose affection, interest, and willingness to entertain me I had taken for granted, just as an infanta assumes the devotion of her courtiers. But that wasn’t all. In the constant hubbub of our extended family, the to-and-fro of visits and phone calls, the telling and retelling of stories, gossip, opinions, advice, and concerns, my relatives had absorbed some of my mother’s emotional energy and distracted her from her focus on me.

Now, without her sisters to argue and shop with, her parents to worry about, and her in-laws to visit, my mother’s attentive gaze, when she wasn’t soaking fruits in permanganate or boiling milk to kill the tropical parasites that threatened us daily, was directed at me. And what she saw was in need of improvement. My baby charms were fading fast, and I was morphing into an icon of preadolescent awkwardness. I was a work in progress, and my mother girded her loins for the challenges that lay ahead.


My mother and I in Quito, 1954

Sunday, May 17, 2020

House Cleaning, Part 2: Good Enough


The good fairy at my cradle gave me a couple of gifts for which I’m grateful. But the bad fairy did me a terrible turn: she instilled in me the conviction that whatever skill I tried to develop, especially the domestic arts, the result was never quite good enough.

Apparently, I am not alone. If the messages from readers of my post about house cleaning are any indication, swarms of bad fairies hover above the cradles of baby girls, and a few baby boys, raining domestic performance anxieties on their innocent heads.

Fortunately, one of you reminded me of the brilliant concept of “good enough.” The term originated with Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist who worried about parents (mostly mothers) tormented by the anxiety that they were falling short of the parenting ideal. Children, Winnicott reminded them, did not evolve to require perfect parents. What they need in order to thrive is mostly reasonable, well-intentioned, usually kind, generally stable, “good enough” mothers and fathers. What they don’t need is parents driven to neurosis by the compulsion to be perfect.

In light of Winnicott, Saint Benedict’s instruction to treat all utensils as if they were the vessels of the altar can seem neurosis-provoking. I may be able to wipe one glass as if it were a consecrated chalice, but a whole sinkful of dishes? Also in light of Winnicott, my compulsion to dust every single book and the shelf behind it was in fact counterproductive, since it led not to my having feelings of reverence towards those yellowing tomes, but to my wanting to throw them into the flames.

If you’re like me, the problem with never thinking that what you do is good enough is that, aside from making you crazy, it paralyzes you. Weary of aiming for, but never achieving, Martha Stewart-levels of domesticity, you may give up cleaning altogether and live in squalor.

The danger is especially critical for those of us who regularly take off our clothes in public—by which I mean paint, write, dance, play the tuba, or engage in any of those vulnerable-making practices known as THE ARTS. The road to the unwritten novel, the unpainted canvas, and the undanced dance is paved with visions of perfection. On the other hand, the road to any accomplishment is paved with that hard to achieve combination of humility and self acceptance that allows the artist, the would-be domestic goddess, and the parent to get something done.

As with everything else, it’s a matter of balance (and alas, balance is so not my style). “Good enough” doesn’t mean perfect, but it doesn’t mean sloppy, either. To me it means “good enough for me,” for who I am, for the moderate gifts that the good fairy bestowed on me at birth. And, as I oscillate on that endless tightrope between perfection and slovenliness, “good enough” also means forgiving myself when I occasionally (frequently) fall off.



Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Housework


When Saint Benedict wrote the Rule for his monastery fifteen centuries ago, he instructed the monk in charge of the kitchen to regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. I have been trying to cultivate that attitude as I clean the house these days, but I’m not having much luck.

Every Tuesday, since housekeeping services were cancelled in our retirement community because of the virus, my husband and I clean the house. He vacuums; I dust. In our 50+ years of marriage, we have only done this a handful of times. Even in our graduate school years, when we ate “dark steaks” (meat sold cheaply because it was well past its prime), and mixed whole milk with the powdered kind to make it go farther, we always scraped enough  money to pay for a housekeeper.

It’s not that we didn’t know how to clean. My husband learned to vacuum before he learned to drive. During high school and college I spent every Saturday morning cleaning my parents’ house. I dusted the trophies that my mother had brought from Ecuador: the eight-foot-long blow gun with its quiver of curare-tipped arrows, and the ceremonial apron and bib made of softened tree bark and decorated with crumbling, once-colorful feathers. I had to time the vacuuming to whenever my father wasn’t practicing the violin, giving a private lesson, or composing at the piano. The worst was wiping the olive oil splatters off the stove and the kitchen’s linoleum floor, since I knew that by dinner time that evening, after yet another of my mother’s delicious sofregits, things would be as greasy as before.

Now, here I am again, dusting, polishing, scrubbing.  It’s not the same, of course. My teenage resentment is gone—it’s my own stuff I’m cleaning, and I can do the work when and how I like. At first, I even found a certain satisfaction in it. Finally, things were being done right. Take the bookcases. The typical cleaning lady dusts the spines of the books, pushes them towards the back, and dusts the exposed front part of the shelf. Instead, I removed each book, wiped its every surface, dusted the space behind it, and, when I was finished, aligned all the books precisely at the edge of the shelf.

This may be the sort of thing that Saint Benedict had in mind, but by the time it was over all I wanted was to build a fire in the front yard, and throw my books into it.

Things have gone downhill from there, as the novelty has worn off. Much as I try to treat every lampshade and every bowl as if it were a sacred object, my mind flits somewhere else, usually to the land of “how much longer is this going to take?” The same monkeys that during meditation hijack my focus away from the breath now whisper evilly in my ear, “It’s just a lampshade, just a bowl. Bo-ring!”

I wonder if Saint Benedict’s cellarer ever did manage to scour those piles of wooden bowls, those greasy cauldrons as worshipfully as if they were the vessels of the altar. If he did, he was a happier, more peaceful cellarer for it.

Yesterday I tried oiling the furniture as a meditation exercise. I rubbed every inch of the sideboard made by the ship’s carpenter on that long-ago Mississippi boat. I lubricated the elderly chests of drawers in the bedroom. Mostly I thought about my husband’s grandfather, who used to show up at our “married students apartment” in his enormous station wagon, with a gift of furniture from his attic. And I also thought about what Colette’s mother, Sido, used to say: “Whenever I spend a lot of time wiping my porcelain teacups, I can feel myself growing old.”

Next Tuesday, when it’s time to clean the kitchen, I’ll try to be more fully present in my work, to treat the sink and the microwave as if they were sacred vessels. I don’t expect to succeed right away, but then, I may well have months if not years to practice.



Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Day After Day


First thing every morning, I take Bisou outside.



Then I feed her and Telemann, and clean the litter box.



Next I make a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, and some toast. Then I ring the breakfast bell.



Some days the sameness of it all makes me want to pull out my hair...



but other days I am filled with gratitude.



Monday, May 4, 2020

Telemann Nights


If sleep had been an Olympic sport, in my youth I would have made the U.S. team. At night I would drink a cup of coffee in bed, turn out the light, and the next thing I knew it would be morning. I took naps like some take Valium--the more anxious I felt, the more I slept. Sleep was my weapon against boredom: I slept through movies and plays and, in my academic years, through faculty meetings, honors convocations, and graduations.

Now the most innocuous email keeps me awake. If I drink coffee or eat a single chocolate chip cookie after 1 p.m., I’m done for. Red wine, not to mention anything stronger, I gave up long ago because of its insomniac effects. But these days even the palest grigio keeps me up.

The first dozen times it happened, it shook my sense of self. Me, the bride of Morpheus, awake at midnight? Me, thrashing under the covers, counting sheep, meditating, slowing my breathing, taking melatonin, drinking chamomile—and all in vain? Without a full nine hours of oblivion, would I survive as anything other than a dried out husk, a living ghost?

But with practice you can get used to anything. Three nights out of seven, whether because of a belated cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or the phase of the moon,  I either can’t fall asleep or I wake up at midnight feeling oddly refreshed, my critical faculties intact, ready to cast a dispassionate eye on the human condition.

When that happens, I do not linger in the conjugal bed, but grab my glasses and my book, and tiptoe out of the room.  Hearing the door click shut, the cat Telemann comes miaowing out of the kitchen, tail held high like a drum major’s baton. He throws himself on his back at my feet, stretches to his full length of about two yards, and does a horizontal belly dance, shimmying and propelling himself across the floor like an upside-down cobra.

I walk into my study and lie on the cot that I keep there for these occasions. Telemann waits until I have arranged the afghan over my body, adjusted the reading lamp, and found my place in the book. When all is ready he jumps up on the spot between my face and the book, and purrs and turns, turns and purrs. Delicately, lest he take offence and return to the kitchen, I push him back a bit so I can see the page. If I do it right, he eventually lies down at waist level and settles to kneading the afghan with passion, his ten white toes spread in ecstasy.

The kneading phase lasts a long time, but gradually his eyes begin to close, and he dozes off. And I, lulled by the purring and kneading, soothed by the warm cat weight on my stomach, take off my glasses, put down my book, turn out the light, and fall asleep.