Monday, October 16, 2017

Always on the Moon

I am folding laundry when a quote by William Morris comes wafting out of my subconscious, "The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life." Morris was ahead of his time. These days everybody, from mental health  professionals to Buddhist monks, tells you that staying in the present is the key to health and happiness, peace and sanity. Unfortunately, I find staying in the present almost impossible to do.

Even as a child--and children are supposed to have a special talent for being "in the now"--I couldn't do it. "Es lenta," (she's slow) the nuns at my school used to complain to my mother. But that was because it took me a while to come back from the edge of the universe to whatever I was supposed to be doing. 

One example: I am marching single file with my class after recess when suddenly I perceive a strange silence around me. I return to earth to find my classmates gone and the yard deserted except for a single nun. Her hands hidden inside the sleeves of her long white habit, she is watching me and shaking her head: "Benejam--siempre en la luna" (always on the moon).

More than half a century has passed since that day, however, during which I have read a lot of books by Buddhist monks and psychiatrists and logged quite a few hours on my meditation cushion, so I should be able to be present and genuinely interested in folding the laundry, right here, right now. 

I pick up one of my husband's undershirts. Feel the cotton, I tell myself. Feel its softness. Notice the Fruit of the Loom tag, and how it has curled. Look at the color of the shirt--it is slightly yellow. It is not terribly yellow, but it would be less yellow if I didn't do my laundry in cold water. But it's the least I can do, in this era when the environment is going to hell in a hand basket, to save a bit of energy. There really should be a law against washing clothes in hot water...And I'm off to the moon again, or rather to the halls of Congress, lobbying for environmental legislation.

When I land back in the present, the underwear is in its drawer. 

Next, I attempt to take a genuine interest in the socks, of which there are many. Some are brown, some black, others navy blue. Some are thick, some are thin--who cares? 

Why am I having so much trouble with this?

It's not that I can never focus on what I'm doing. There are a couple of things that force me to pay attention--one is writing, and the other is playing the recorder (and even during the latter sometimes my mind wanders in the easy passages). But with almost all the other "details of daily life"--taking Bisou for a walk, brushing my teeth, cleaning Telemann's litter box--I am, as that long-ago nun used to say, always on the moon.

Sorting socks, I fantasize what it would be like to be in the moment all day, every day, taking a genuine interest in whatever was in front of my nose. I would probably be a more relaxed person, a nicer one for sure. Maybe if I were more like William Morris I would be able to draw like him... How unfortunate that I've been cursed with this drive to inhabit the moon.

My mind grinds on laboriously, ruminating on what-ifs and might-have-beens, until I realize with a jolt that time has passed and all the socks have been united with their mates, like the beasts in Noah's ark. Not only that, but I have written this entire blog post in my head.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Of Flags and Feelings

We Catalans have always been a hairy people, so it's not surprising that we owe our flag (la senyera) to a 9th-century count of Barcelona named Wilfred the Hairy (Wilfred el Pilós). The story is lost in the mists of time, and historians love to poke holes in it, but we Catalans love to tell it.

It seems that Wilfred was helping the king of France, Charles the Bald--or perhaps his son, Louis the Stammerer--in a battle against the Visigoths (or perhaps the Moors). With Wilfred's help, Charles (or Louis) won the battle, but Wilfred was wounded.

The King wanted to show his gratitude, and Wilfred asked him to put a mark on his coat of arms, which was plain gold. With a sense of the grand gesture, Charles (or Louis), dipped four fingers in the blood of Wilfred and dragged them from top to bottom of the coat of arms. And that is how la senyera, also known as the four bars of blood (les quatre barres de sang) came about.

If you have watched Catalans marching and voting for independence in recent weeks, you may have noticed, in the ocean of waving senyeres, people holding up their hands with four fingers extended. They are duplicating the gesture, thirteen centuries old, of Charles the Bald (or maybe Louis the Stammerer) on the coat of arms of Wilfred el Pilós.

Most news reports attribute Catalans' desire for independence to financial matters. And it is true that Catalans pay the highest taxes in Europe and get precious little of that money back from the central government in Madrid. But it is much more than that. The secessionist impulse is based on a deep sense of separate identity, an identity whose clearest emblem is the Catalan language.

No one understood this better than Franco, and after winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939 he immediately forbade the use of Catalan in public fora. My generation was not taught to read and write Catalan in school; we did not see it in newspapers or street signs, or hear it in church or the radio or anywhere outside of home and the corner market. Franco imported the dreaded Guardia Civil from other parts of Spain to keep order in Catalonia. The guardias did not speak Catalan, and when addressed in the language would bark, "hablad cristiano!" (speak "Christian").

When Franco finally died in 1975 and Catalonia was granted a certain degree of autonomy, there was an explosion of feeling for all things Catalan, but especially the language. I have never known a population so obsessed with their native tongue. In a vegetable market in Barcelona in the early 1980s I overheard two old ladies, their net bags overflowing with the day's shopping, arguing about the proper Catalan term for "carrot," whether it was pastanaga, or safranòria.

So the Catalan desire for independence is not just about money, but also about history, tradition, language...and something else. It's an attachment to that fertile triangle tucked between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean and coveted in turn by Greece, Rome, the Arab caliphate, and France, not to mention Spain. It's about the human towers wobbling against the sky, the geese in the cloister of the Barcelona cathedral, the sardana (as different from flamenco as a dance could be) danced by young and old on the city square. And through it all flows the sound of the language, long forbidden and reviled and all the more loved for that.

I heard a young Catalan on the radio today. "Why are you for independence?" the interviewer asked. "It's not the money," he answered. "It's more than that. I don't know. It's just a...a...It's a feeling!" he concluded, triumphantly. Many listeners probably found him inarticulate, but I know just what he meant.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cat And Dog

People laugh at me when they hear his name--who would name a kitten after an 18th century composer? But I must have done something right, because I have never had a cat, or a dog for that matter, who so faithfully and eagerly comes when called. Telemann, from the first couple of days, he had mastered that envy of all dog trainers: the perfect recall. All I have to say is "Telemann, Telemann!" and, out from under the bed or down from the top of the bookshelf, he waltzes into my presence, tail held high, its tip curved into a question mark, "You wanted me?" 

He is the most dog-like cat I have ever had, learning not to jump into the litter box while I'm cleaning it, and not to even think (please God!) of dipping his paw into the Japanese-style tub that is home to my two fan-tailed goldfish, But his most canine quality is his compulsion to be near me: in the sink (yes, in--he adores water) while I brush my teeth, on my lap as I try to type (why do you think it takes me so long to write a post?), on the bed when I take a nap.

If naps with Bisou were lovely, naps with Bisou and Telemann are divine. The minute they see me take the cozy gray comforter out of the closet they both jump on the bed. Bisou settles next to my left calf. Telemann, purring mightily, kneads the comforter for a bit, then licks my nose and subsides against my right ribs. One hand on Bisou's haunch and the other on the curve of Telemann's back, I fall asleep with the odd but restful feeling that I am a member of a weird interspecies litter.

But he is nevertheless a cat, a member of the tribe of tiger, and our cottage often becomes a miniature Serengeti, with Telemann as apex predator and Bisou as hapless wildebeest. He watches from under the bed skirts, then leaps out on top of her, flings his arms around her neck, and tries to deliver the killing bite. She shakes him off, then runs back to see if he will do it again, which he does.

They paw at each other, stand on their hind legs and wrestle, leapfrog over each other. But in the evenings, when Rachel Maddow alternately mocks and bemoans what is happening in the country, Bisou and Telemann sleep aligned like spoons on the sofa next to me, one of the wildebeest's legs draped casually over the former predator's neck.

On the days when CFS nails me to the bed, and the news--Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, and my country, Catalunya--sits like a stone on my chest, I give thanks for the two fur-bearing persons who, in exchange for room and board, are content to lie close to me in silence, and watch the afternoon light fade a little earlier each day.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rock or Lion?

Every morning, while my uncle hitched the ancient farm horse to the cart, my grandmother would come out of the kitchen to supervise. "That horse," she would say, shaking her head,"is going to kill somebody one of these days." No matter that the horse hadn't broken into a trot within living memory: disaster could strike at any time.

Years later, I am in college and living at home. I am warming up the engine of my Renault Dauphine to get to my morning class across Birmingham, Alabama, when my mother runs out of the house and thrusts a hard-boiled egg through the driver's side window. "Here. Eat this on the way. You don't want to faint at the wheel and cause a tragedy." No matter that I have never fainted in my life, but it is best to be prepared.

Both my grandmother and my mother had lived through the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, so they had an excuse for their hyper vigilance. And they were convinced that it worked: after all, the cart horse never did kill anybody, and I never fainted at the wheel of that tiny car.

Unlike my mother and grandmother, however, I have led a peaceful existence, free (so far) from wars and other disasters. So there is no apparent reason for my own deep-seated conviction that it is only my constant watchfulness that keeps the world from falling to pieces.

Here is what goes through my mind on a routine trip to the market. At this season in Vermont the roads are rife with cyclists. What if one of them swerves in front of my car? What if, in the fruit aisle, the grapes I put in my cart are contaminated with a deadly bacterium? What if, at the checkout, I find out that our credit card's been hacked and we are now penniless?

When he was an old man, Mark Twain said that he had lived through many catastrophes, most of which never happened. Like the women in my family, Twain suffered from what scientists call the "negativity bias," a tendency towards pessimism and anxiety engraved in our DNA over millions of years by natural selection.

Say you are an early human wandering on the African savanna. Behind a tree in the distance, you see a beige-colored mass. It could be a rock, or it could be a lion. If you optimistically assume that it is a rock but it turns out to be a lion, you and your potential descendants are toast. If, on the other hand, you are an anxious type like Mark Twain, you will take to your heels immediately and, regardless of what the beige object actually turns out to be, you will live to pass on your genes, which will include a tendency to expect the worst.

The problem in our time is that, with lions on the wane, the negativity bias causes unwarranted stress and militates against the health and well being of millions of us modern Cassandras. It may even work against reproductive success, since deciding to become a parent requires at least a modicum of optimism. So the lesson for people like me might be to learn to imagine fewer lions, and trust in the ubiquitousness of rocks.

But the thing is that, for both optimists and Cassandras alike, there will ultimately be a lion behind the tree. It will be no use pretending that it is a rock, or hoping that it is old and toothless. That lion will catch us no matter how fast we flee.The closer I get to that final encounter, the more I think that the trick is not to run or struggle, but to face the beast and respectfully ask it to deliver the killing bite as quickly and kindly as possible.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Of Uncles And Equines

My favorite uncle, the husband of my grandmother's sister, was that rarity: a schoolmaster who adored kids. Early in our acquaintance we cast each other in roles which we never tired of playing: he as a devil (un dimoni!) and I as his intended victim. He only actually chased me once. After that, he merely had to look at me sideways to send me fleeing with terror and delight down the long dark hallway of my parents' Barcelona apartment. But this was just our urban entertainment. In the summer, we had my grandparents' entire farm for our adventures.

One summer my grandfather got a mother/daughter pair of donkeys to work on the farm. I don't remember the daughter's name, but we named the mother La Reverències ("Curtsies") after her habit of suddenly bending one of her knees.

My uncle one day got permission from my grandfather to take my visiting boy cousins from Barcelona and me to ride the donkeys on the threshing floor in front of the barn, which sat far from the house on a slight rise beyond the vegetable garden and the wheat field. A bare flat space, the threshing floor had been baked granite-hard over the centuries by the sun and the enormous stone rollers that crushed the wheat at harvest time.

My grandfather agreed, with the proviso that my uncle ride with me, to prevent accidents. So while my cousins took turns riding the younger donkey, my uncle and I got on La Reverències. The sun was beating down on our heads, the cicadas were going full blast, and the sky was so clear that I could see the Pyrenees in the distance as we made our way round and round the threshing ground.

The sun, the cicadas, and the slow clip-clop of the donkey's hooves had me in a kind of trance when, out of the blue, La Reverències curtsied and my uncle and I tobogganed neatly over her neck and crashed to the ground. It could not have happened faster if the donkey's neck had been drenched in olive oil. I can still feel the hardness of the ground on landing, and hear the laughter of my cousins as my uncle and I dusted ourselves off, while, nearby, the culprit munched serenely on some tufts of summer-dry grass.

La Reverències, left, and her daughter, right. Between them, my cousins and I, in our summer espadrilles. In the background, the back of the barn. Both my cousins and the donkeys seemed like giants to me. When did they shrink so much?

My other uncle, my mother's youngest sibling, was barely out of his teens when I was a toddler. He lived with my grandparents, rode a big motorcycle, hunted partridge and quail in season, and had curly blondish hair and a small straight nose. In the summer, the sun would turn his face bright red.

One evening, he and I were leading the carthorse from the barn back to the stable, which was across the courtyard from the house, for his dinner of oats and hay. As a special treat, my uncle said that I could ride the horse, on the condition that I hold tightly on to his mane. This was a first for me, and I was thrilled by the motion of the great beast, the smell of horse sweat and the prickly feel of his hair on my bare legs. The sun was going down, a cool breeze had come up, and in the pear trees that bordered the path a nightingale began to sing. Inspired by the bird, my uncle also broke into song: Oh Susana, no llores más por mí/Con mi banjo y mi caballo a Alabama me marché...

Then, perhaps carried away by the beauty of the evening and the prospect of dinner, he gave the horse a friendly slap on the rump. The usually lethargic beast misunderstood and broke into a trot. My uncle ran alongside, looking terrified, and I tried to hold on, but the sudden jolting and the sensation of my seat losing contact with the horse were so disconcerting that I lost my head, let go of the mane, and flew through the air and into the arms of my uncle, who fortunately had excellent eye-hand coordination and whose face, I noticed, had turned beet red.

He set me down, caught the horse, stopped to catch his breath, then squatted to look me in the eye and whispered, "Do not ever tell your parents what just happened."

And this, if my parents read this blog somewhere in the cosmos, is the first they'll hear of it.                                                  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Relativity, continued

Now I am fifteen, sitting in my American History class, in a Catholic high school in the Deep South. I am a little nervous because we are studying the discovery of America and I fear that my teacher, like my Ecuadorian teacher before him, will attack me for Spain's role in the conquest. But I needn't have worried. The talk here is all about Columbus, which makes the Italian kids in the class feel important. Just before the bell rings, almost in passing, the teacher briefly mentions the queen of Spain.

How is this possible? In my Spanish school, Isabel, la Reina Católica, was presented to us girls as a paragon of womanhood, a queen who shared equal power with her husband, Fernando de Aragón. She unified the squabbling kingdoms of the peninsula into one great country, won a decisive victory over the Moors, and was the only European ruler who listened to Columbus and gave him the money, the men, and the ships to embark on his crazy adventure. But in this American classroom, the queen and her magnificent enterprise are dismissed with barely a word. Perhaps, I tell myself, we will learn more about Spain's role in America in the next class.

But instead, in the next class we celebrate the arrival of the English in North America, and the establishment of the New England colonies. Not much is said about the the Indians that the colonists encountered, and I wonder what happened to them, since there don't seem to be nearly as many around as there are in South America...

I have now studied the events of 1492 in three different countries. In Spain, we were taught the discovery and conquest of the New World as a glorious chapter in the history of humanity. In Ecuador, my teacher presented Spain as a cruel and greedy imperialist power. Now, in my American classroom, Spanish history is all but ignored. One historical era, and three completely different versions of it--my adolescent brain is beginning to suspect that history class may not be all that different from literature class.

Three years pass, and now I'm sitting in Western Civ, in my liberal arts college, also in the Deep South. We are back to 1492, and the professor, unlike my high school teacher, does pay Queen Isabella some attention. But now she is presented as a monster who expelled the Moors and the Jews from Spain and gave the Inquisition the power to torture and kill in the name of the Catholic faith. Oddly, I don't remember being taught about the Inquisition in  my Catholic high school.

Soon we get to Elizabeth I, and I am amazed to hear her described as a powerful, enlightened monarch who vanquished Spain and put England at the head of the civilized world. I dimly recall my teacher in Spain describing the Virgin Queen as a thief who paid pirates to sink Spanish ships...

I am older now and these discrepancies no longer upset me like they used to. I realize that Western Civ is a handy framework on which to hang what I am learning in other classes on European art, philosophy, and literature. And for relief from the treacherous sands of history there is always my Biology major, which I have chosen because it seems to offer firm ground for my wobbly mind. In my white lab coat, inhaling formaldehyde fumes, I can put a slide under the microscope and identify this tiny swimming animal as a Paramecium and that tiny photosynthesizing plant as a Euglena, and take comfort in the belief that scientists all over the world agree with my identification.

This is the 1960s, however, and Biology is changing rapidly. Little do I suspect that by the end of the decade both Paramecium and Euglena, no longer clearly identified as either animal or plant, will be dumped into that swamp of uncertainty, the kingdom Protista. But by then I am in graduate school, studying French literature, which everyone agrees is just words anyway.

Monday, April 3, 2017


"You, Benejam, stand up, please," says Madre Mercedes del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús ("Corazón," for short). "Tell us what you think about what I have just said."

She teaches the fifth-grade class in Quito, Ecuador, where I have recently arrived from Spain. And what she has just said is that, shortly after Columbus discovered America, Francisco Pizarro and two-hundred Spanish soldiers, impelled by greed and blood-lust, conquered the Inca empire that extended from Colombia to Chile. They captured the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, and, even though Atahualpa offered them a room filled with gold to a man's height in exchange for his life, they basely murdered him and untold thousands of others.

What, Corazón  wants to know, do I, as a Spaniard, have to say to that?

Standing in the back of the room, with my classmates' eyes upon me, I open my mouth and quickly close it. My ten-year-old mind is blank. Corazón's account of my country's conquest of America is strangely different from what I learned just a few months ago in my history class in Barcelona.

There I was taught that the conquest of the Americas was one of the greatest achievements not only in the history of Spain, but in the history of mankind. Braving the dangers of an unknown ocean in ridiculously small boats, our fearless ancestors sallied forth to bring to the new continent our language, our culture, and, most important, the Catholic faith, thanks to which the natives stopped offering human sacrifices to their gods and started going to heaven after they died. We should feel proud, our teacher said, of what Spain did for America, and the proof was that our former colonies call Spain la madre patria and have become our friends and allies.

Right now, Corazón, all but sneering as I squirm, doesn't seem very friendly to me. Neither do my staring classmates, even the ones who have told me proudly that there was "a real Spaniard" somewhere in their family tree.

I scour my brain for clues from the bits of history I know. Before the conquest of America, Spain herself had been conquered in turn by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. They had swept over the peninsula leaving blood and carnage, but also roads, temples, aqueducts, and mosques, in their wake. Just two centuries ago the French under Napoleon had invaded Spain. Does this mean that I should hate Françoise, the pianist from the Paris Conservatoire who plays sonatas with my father the way that Corazón seems to hate me?

I stare out the classroom window at the light glinting on the snows of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, and think of ways to defend myself. "But wait!" I say, "haven't killed any Indians. Neither did my parents, or my grandparents, or my..."

"Sit down, Benejam," says the nun, "and be quiet. The conquistadores were from your country, and you should be ashamed."

It strikes me, as the lesson continues and I sit fuming, that there are strong parallels between Corazón's train of thought and the doctrine of Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate an apple a million years ago, I now bear the taint of sin on my soul, which means that, as a "daughter of Eve," I will be punished with menstrual periods and labor pains. How much more unfair can you get?

From that day on, whenever the subject of Spain comes up, I keep a low profile. This is especially important when we sing the Ecuadorian national anthem, which with its references to Spain as a bloody monster (monstruo sangriento), a defeated lion (león destrozado) roaring with impotence and spite, may cause my classmates to turn on me in a fit of patriotic fervor.

I was neither sophisticated nor carefree enough to navigate these choppy international waters. If I had stayed in Spain, I would have continued to think comfortably of the conquest of America as one of the glories of European civilization. But now, despite my anger at the way Corazón had embarrassed me in front of my classmates, I had to admit that she might be right. Did the "gifts" of "civilization" and the one true faith really compensate all those poor Indians for their terrible losses?

Nobody explained these things to me, but I soon began to suspect that history might not always be an exact account of what really happened. Perhaps what I read in the history textbooks had been written to make children grow up to be patriots who would defend their country no matter what. But if one nation's story of glory and heroism could be another nation's story of suffering and pain, what did patriotism really mean? (To be continued.)