Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Me and the String Quartet


In 1954 the government of Ecuador imported a string quartet from Barcelona. I spent the last years of my childhood in Quito, in a house that my father, my mother, and I shared with the three other players.

In those pre-pollution days, we all woke up each morning to the sight of five active volcanoes around the city: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Rucu Pichincha, and, the most apt to shower cars and sidewalks with ashes, Guagua Pichincha. After exclaiming about the beauty of the view and speculating on which volcano would erupt next, the quartet would rehearse.

This began with a lengthy session of meticulous tuning which the cellist, who had studied with Casals, insisted on. My father would play his A string, and the second violinist would try to match it exactly. This took a while. “Maybe it’s a touch flat,” the cellist would say. Then, “Perhaps you need to bring it down, just a hair.” The process was repeated with the viola and the cello, and finally the real playing would begin—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and what my father called a “piece of candy” for the audience: the Tchaikovsky quartet, Op. 1, with its saccharine second movement.

In the afternoon the musicians practiced individually, and my father gave violin lessons to the children of Quito’s Jewish community. On the weekends, we went adventuring—and in those days, the moment you left the capital you were sure to have adventures.

Only my father and the cellist knew how to drive. The cellist had a tiny blue Fiat, and my father drove a 1944 Dodge with a wonky second gear (my mother had to hold up the gear shift with a forked stick whenever we descended from the high Andes to a lower altitude).

We would pile into the two cars and set off for the páramos, vast barren plateaus so high above sea level that, even having grown accustomed to Quito’s nine-thousand-foot altitude, we would gasp for breath at the smallest exertion.

Time and time again we would pull off the stone-paved road, a legacy of the Incas, and everyone would get out and gaze with wonder at yet another set of volcanoes (Imbabura! Tungurahua! Sangay!). Everyone but me, that is. The more my parents exhorted me to appreciate the beauty all around, the less I saw to admire. If at least there had been some interesting animals, but other than the occasional high-flying condor or a herd of llamas haughtily ignoring us, all I could see was an endless expanse of beige barrenness.

The trips to the jungles of the Pacific or the Amazon were more entertaining—someone was always foisting a parrot or a monkey on us, and there were almost-naked Indians with painted bodies. We spent one Christmas as the only whites in a village populated by the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves. They were tall and majestic, very dark skinned, and dressed in immaculate white. All night long, on Christmas Eve, they drummed and chanted in ways that sounded just like the sound-track of King Solomon’s Mines.

Hotels were beyond rustic. On one trip to Puyo, in the Amazon jungle, the viola player, a courtly, balding, bespectacled Catalan, addressed the hotel owner. "Madam," he said, "would you be so kind as to direct me to the bathroom?" She led him to an open window and gestured with silent dignity to the verdant vista stretching uninterrupted all the way to Brazil. In the morning it was raining and, since there was no running water, my father and his three colleagues shaved under the downspout in front of the building.

Did I mind living with five adults? As an only child, in Spain I had made my aunts, my uncles and my grandfather into playmates. Now I did the same with the members of the quartet.

I didn’t much care for the cellist, whom I found vain and affected, with his upturned nose, his little mustache, and his obsession with tuning. But the viola player, despite his thick glasses and his jowly face, made an excellent playmate. Our bedrooms were adjoining, and at night we would communicate by knocking on the wall between our beds. My favorite, however, was the second violin, because he was the best-looking of all--tall and aristocratic, with an elegant Roman nose. Also, he had an ocelot kitten, named Pepita, that I coveted.

Not only did I find these men entertaining, I did my best to entertain them. I made jokes and invented games, one of which consisted of appending Italian endings  like -ella and -etto to Spanish words, which I found hilarious as well as clever. I showed off, sang loudly out of tune, giggled. They in turn teased me and called me Unita, which translates roughly as “Onesy,” referring to my only-child status. If they ever found me annoying, they didn’t show it.

I burst into puberty like one of the volcanoes that periodically erupted around us. There was no graceful flowering into demure young womanhood. Overnight I grew breasts, pimples, and hair on my legs. But my mind lagged behind my burgeoning anatomy, and I persisted in my childish ways. Or perhaps those ways weren’t so childish, and my fondness for the violist and the second violinist was more of an adolescent crush than the reaching out of a lonely child.

After a couple of years, the second violinist packed his bags and returned to Spain. The violist married his Catalan fiancée, a woman in her mid-thirties, by proxy. (This had to be done because her parents would not allow her to cross the Atlantic alone as an unmarried woman.) My parents sat drinking brandy with the groom on his brideless wedding night, and months later, when his wife finally arrived, I lost my remaining playmate. But by then I didn’t care: I had met a boy my age at a bar mitzvah, and fallen in love.

Me being kidnapped in the Amazon by the viola player (holding knife and using my braid as a mustache) and the second violinist


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Golfing Bees


I heard it on NPR, so it must be true: scientists trained bees to play a golf-like game in which the bee pushed a ball into a little hole in order to get a sugar-water reward. The trained bees then demonstrated before novice bees, who not only learned from them but quickly figured out ways to put the ball in the hole more efficiently than the trained bees.

Half a century ago Jane Goodall showed that chimpanzees used twigs to get tasty termites out of their mounds. Instances of tool use further “down” the evolutionary scale, among monkeys, birds, and even octopuses, soon followed.

One by one, the flags that once marked us as unique are going up in flames as animal behaviorists show that, when given appropriate tools such as computers, certain primates can use language, albeit in a rudimentary way. And if you paint a dot on the face of a monkey, an elephant, a dolphin, a magpie, or even an ant, and then stand them in front of a mirror, they will touch the paint spot, thus demonstrating a kind of self-awareness.

And now bees, despite their tiny brains, have shown that they can readily learn, and improve on, behaviors that in the wild are totally outside their repertoire.What are we supposed to do with all this information? Fret and feel guilty, obviously.

I can’t spray soapy water on the ants on my kitchen counter without feeling like some vengeful deity massacring innocent beings. And what about my nemesis, those mouse-sized, appalling wolf spiders that come into my warm house in the fall, hoping in their little spider hearts that this year I’ll let them hang out in a corner of the mud room? Am I a monster for going after them with a broom?

How can I justify anything but the strictest veganism when I know that eating eggs (even ones from free-range hens) and dairy is predicated on the sacrifice of male chickens and calves? Yet even vegans must think twice before sitting down to dinner, now that it has been revealed that trees communicate with each other, warning of dangers such as invasive insects. Mother trees, bless their hearts, do their best to protect and nourish their little saplings. If trees are sentient, what about other plants? How does a lettuce feel as it is yanked out of its native soil?

I don’t know where this will end, and perhaps some human-made disaster will close this chapter in the development of our consciousness. But one outcome is that, albeit slowly, our treatment of animals is improving.

Many years ago, before the advent of PETA, I worked for a few months in a respected laboratory where, with the goal of curing cancer, thousands of mice, hamsters, and rats were subjected to great suffering. Today those conditions would be unthinkable, and a place like that would be closed down.

Every spring, in Vermont, when the moon is in a certain phase and the salamanders march to their breeding grounds, hundreds of people spend the night at designated spots on country roads, acting as crossing guards for the amphibians.

Not so long ago, in both rich and poor neighborhoods , dogs and cats used to run loose, breeding, fighting, and getting run over. Leash laws and spay/neuter programs have rendered the lifestyle of our pets far less “natural” than in the old days, but as a result they live longer, healthier lives. It used to be that you never heard of a cat living into her late teens, but I now personally know of several.

Not a moment too soon, we humans are beginning to abandon our cherished spot at the top of the evolutionary scale. As science demonstrates that sentience and cognition are more widely distributed than we ever imagined, the great chain of being is morphing into a circle, a dance that Brother Wolf and Brother Rabbit (and even Sister Spider) can join in, along with us.



Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Litany


As a musician, my father was seldom home in the evenings, but on his nights off he often led us in saying the Rosary. My mother, her two sisters, and I would sit in the dining room while he walked up and down, beads in hand. The Rosary consists of five Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys. How long does it take to say all those prayers? If you’re a kid, half your life.

“Why do I have to say those same words over and over?” I ask my mother.

“You’re supposed to meditate on the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” she says.

“But it’s boring!”

“Shhh. Your father’s about to begin.”

I stare at the bread crumbs from dinner that litter the yellow tiles under the table. The maid is waiting in her room for us to finish saying the Rosary so she can sweep and go to bed. I glance at my mother’s stockings, which she has rolled like donuts around her ankles to keep them from getting runs, and decide that when I’m allowed to wear stockings I will never roll them like that. I envy my father, who is allowed to walk while he prays, instead of having to sit still.

After the last Hail Mary is said, however, there is a reward: the Litany of the Virgin Mary, a list of fifty epithets of the Mother of God, which my father recites in Latin. After each name, we respond in chorus, ora pro nobis (pray for us).

Here is a sample:

Speculum iustitiae (Mirror of justice)
Sedes sapientiae (Seat of wisdom)
Causa nostrae laetitiae (Cause of our joy)
Rosa mystica (Mystical rose)
Turris eburnea (Tower of ivory)
Stella matutina (Morning star)

I don’t know why this list of names thrills me. Years later I realize that they have  something in common with Homeric epithets such as “white-armed Hera,” and “bright-eyed Athena.” At age nine, though, I have not yet heard of Homer, and I don’t know Latin. I can make out a few words, but even if I understood all of them I would find them puzzling: what is a tower of ivory, or a mirror of justice, and what do they have to do with the Virgin Mary?

But I love the rhythm of the Litany, my father with his raspy smoker’s voice pacing in synch with the names, and us responding ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis. On and on go the names, Mother of our Creator, Virgin most powerful….And this  extraordinary collection of praises is dedicated to a woman—one who as a teenager was visited by an angel, which was just the first of a series of amazing things that happened to her.

And now that She is in Heaven, sitting between God the Father and her Son, Jesus, with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovering above her head, She looks down upon me kindly (Virgin most merciful) and with special understanding, because she was once a girl like me.

The presence of this quasi-divine Lady in the heaven of my childhood gives me something that the images of God the Father, with his white beard, and God the Son, with his brown beard, could never give me: a sense of identification with the divine feminine that puts me in the ancient lineage of females—Babylonian girls praying to Ishtar, Egyptian mothers praising Isis, Greek wives sacrificing to Hera—who, from time immemorial, have sought help and consolation from the Mother of us all.



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Pasture


Sometimes I imagine, and not in a morbid way, that I’m lying on my deathbed, remembering my life. Like everybody else, I’ve had moments of high joy: wedding day, childbirth, work-related stuff. But there are also more subtly-flavored memories. Pregnancy, once the initial excitement abated, was one. I would lie on the sofa in the afternoon, not reading the book on my lap, not crossing items on my to-do list, not writing letters to my mother, but content to simply gestate.

Nursing my babies was another. Those enforced breaks from the brouhaha of early motherhood allowed me to put aside laundry and work. Rocking slowly, listening to the little slurps and gulps, I might have been a mother cat, blinking in the sun and purring as she nursed her litter.

But that was long ago. The last time I felt this kind of contentment was in the field in front of my house, in southern Vermont. It is a cliché spring morning. The grass is bright green, and the dandelions are glinting in the sun. Up high on the house roof, against the clear sky, the bluebird sings his wistful little song. And, for the first time in months, I am letting Lizzie and Emma, my goats, out of their yard.

They are twin Nubians, one black, one fawn, with droopy silver ears and Roman profiles. The moment I open the gate they dash out to the field, their long ears flapping, and set to gobbling great handfuls of grass.

The field is not fenced in, so I need to stay with them. In the past I’ve tried bringing a book to read, but the moment I open it Lizzie and Emma rush to look over my shoulder, reaching their long necks to nibble the pages: “What’s this you’re reading?” Another time I brought paper and pencil, intending to draw them. But again, as soon as they spotted me doing something with my hands, they cast aside all thoughts of grass and ran over to see, and taste, my drawings.

Since multitasking is out of the question, I watch my goats eat. They tear off amazing quantities of grass and shove them down their throats with a few mighty chomps. Later, when their stomachs are filled to bursting, they will lie down and regurgitate the contents, give them a proper chew, and re-swallow them. It’s what ruminants do.

I sit on the grass and do nothing. Cleaning out the hen house; getting the garden beds ready for the chard and kale and broccoli seedlings that are waiting on the kitchen windowsills; thinning the baby apples that are starting to swell now that the blooms are gone will all have to wait until the goats have eaten.

For now, I watch and I listen. A lulling rhythm soon establishes itself as the goats move across the pasture: step, yank, chomp; step, yank, chomp. The bluebird has stopped singing. Maybe his mate has arrived and they’re at the back of the house, stuffing old grass and twigs into their nest box.

The sun—surprise!—actually feels warm now, and I discreetly take off my down vest and sit on it, to keep from attracting the attention of Lizzie and Emma, who will want to investigate. I breathe the clean Vermont air, chew on a grass stem.  Is this what they mean by “pastoral peace”? It’s a very ancient human thing I’m doing, sitting in a field, watching goats pasture. I think about the shepherds watching their flocks on Christmas eve two millennia ago, and about the even older psalmist who identified with sheep being led to rest in green pastures.

I think about those other peace-inducing states—being pregnant, nursing babies. Like watching goats graze, they are only seemingly passive. Lying on the sofa, rocking in the chair, sitting on the grass, I am doing nothing, but accomplishing a great deal: growing a fetus, feeding an infant, keeping goats safe while they pluck dandelions.

These are things that nobody ever taught me. For once, I didn’t have to take notes, or memorize lists, or practice techniques. They arose in me naturally, without recourse to the frontal lobes of my brain.

I hope that death is another thing that comes naturally, without conscious effort--something that, along with our animal brothers and sisters, we humans instinctively already know how to do. And I take comfort in the thought that in some future spring the molecules of my body will turn to grass for somebody’s goats or cows or sheep, and I will be part of that pastoral peace forever.



Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mantillas



 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.