Saturday, January 31, 2009

Goat Confessions

I've been a bit of a hypocrite here lately, nattering on about paying attention, wanting what I have, doing more with less. The truth is, dear readers, I have been thinking about goats.

Those of you who know my history may give a shudder or a cheer, depending.

Goats and I go a long way back. Back to the heroic 70s, when Ed and I and our two toddlers moved to 1 ½ acres in the then-idyllic Maryland countryside. There was an orchard, and a huge vegetable garden, and berry bushes, and chickens. My mother visited and said “Well! All you need now is a little goat, and you'll be all set.” She said it rhetorically, but that's not how it struck me. A month later, I had two goats, which I milked every morning on my way to my tenure-track job teaching French lit, and often milked well after midnight coming back from funky parties to which I wore very short outfits made out of fringed tablecloths.

The 80s came, life changed, and we moved into various towns and cities where critters were banned. But in the 90s I managed to have goats again. And for the first time, I made cheese.

The last time I had goats was in Vermont—beautiful Nubians who drowned me in milk, a single goat producing a gallon every day. Keeping up with the output was a trial, and I learned a lot about making cheese, but in the end I had to let it go. The goats were too big, required too much hay, produced too much compost, and way too much milk--all good things with which I couldn't cope.

But I missed them, my lovely does, warm and deer-like and smelling of hay and milk and manure. Then one day recently, on the internet, I learned about Nigerian Dwarfs. Despite their name, these are perfectly-proportioned, tiny goats, 17” high at the shoulder. They have been bred for dairy use: they average 1/3 the weight of large-breed goats, eat 1/3 as much, but produce ½ as much milk. No wonder Nigerians were the breed of choice for the Biosphere Project.

Nigerian Dwarfs sound like the breed of choice for me...should I have no choice but to have goats. But what about those mornings when “milk comes frozen home in pail,” as Shakespeare said. What about the hand-fed babies who need a bottle every couple of hours. What about the need to find them good homes. (To get milk from a goat, you have to breed her, which means babies to dispose of every year.)

But then there is spring, and goats grazing on the new grass, and gorgeous high-butterfat sweet milk, and cheese spiced with home-grown rosemary or hot peppers.

I've asked my family, my friends, and the universe for guidance, but they all say “it's YOUR decision....”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Words That Stayed With Me

I was eleven years old and about to step on the stage to play a solo violin arrangement of Schubert's Overture to Rosamunde in a recital of my father's students.

My father, who was also my teacher, tuned my strings (I was not advanced enough to do it myself). Then he handed me the violin and said, “serenity, intonation, and a beautiful sound.” And with that he sent me on stage, where I acquitted myself honorably.

Now, a lifetime later and my father long dead, I am revisiting those words, and it occurs to me that they apply to a lot more than to the performance of a student recital piece. In fact, they sound like good advice for how to live my life.

First you have to have Serenity, the clean slate without which nothing good is possible. Next comes Intonation, which means, get it right, be accurate. Then, once you've made yourself calm and gotten the basics right, you strive for A Beautiful Sound. That is the thing that cannot be taught, the mysterious gift of the Muse, made of feeling and talent and luck .

I find that I can apply my father's three precepts to everything from writing to dog training. If I intend to write something, first I have to get calm and clear my mind. (Often, attaining serenity before a writing session means taking a short nap.) As I write, I try to make sure that I get the “intonation” right—not just syntax and spelling, but logic and the flow of ideas. A false note here can cost me a reader's attention. And then comes the Beautiful Sound part--what the cellist Pau Casals used to call “putting in the rainbow”--the part that you never know about in advance, but that you hope with all your heart will somehow happen.

If I am about to train Wolfie, the first part, serenity, is really important. If I am not serene, he won't be either, and the session will be a disaster. I have trouble with serenity when I work Wolfie, because I want too much to succeed, and quickly. I have less difficulty with intonation—stuff like giving clear commands and instant praise. If I get all this right, then on a good day Wolfie and I get to the Beautiful Sound part, where he watches and attends to me and enjoys the challenges I set for him, and I watch and attend to him and manage, for a little while, to speak fluent Dog.

In retrospect, I can empathize with my father at that long-ago recital. He must have felt a measure of anxiety if not compassion on my behalf. And in that last moment before I went in front of the audience he managed to distill into those simple words all his wisdom as an artist, which was also his wisdom as a man.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Morning With Chickens

When the weather is really cold and the wind is blowing, I keep the door of the chicken coop closed and the light on. Poor Charlemagne's magnificent comb and wattles are turning black at the edges from frostbite, so I want to give him all the protection I can. At the same time, fresh air and sunshine are good for chickens, and too much protection can make them sick.

This morning the sun was out, the temperature was inching into the twenties, and I decided it was time to open the coop door to the elements. But when I went to open it, I found that it was frozen shut. (If you're wondering how I got into the coop in the first place: our animal dwelling is attached to the back of our attached garage, so I can get to my beasties in all weathers. The door that froze shut was the one leading from the coop into the chicken yard.)

I gave the door a couple of shoves, to no avail: this was a job for the hair dryer. I took off my barn shoes and put on my house shoes and went up to the second-floor bathroom and fetched the dryer and came back downstairs and took off my house shoes and put on my barn shoes and plugged in the dryer and turned it on.

All I could do was aim the warm air at the crack between the bottom of the door and the floor, I couldn't even see the ice that was causing the trouble, since it was all on the outside. This is the kind of job that makes me nuts. I was crouching on the straw, blowing hot air at an invisible chunk of ice that might take hours, or even days, to melt. There had to be a faster way.

I turned off the dryer and got a weeding tool—a metal rod about a foot long, with a bifurcated end—and tried to get it under the door, but it was sealed shut. I got up and hit the door with my shoulder as hard as I could, the way I'd seen police do on TV. The door barely budged. With a sigh of irritation I crouched down again and turned on the hair dryer.

I thought I could entertain myself by watching the chickens—you know, paying attention to them, being in the moment. But the noise of the dryer was making it impossible to pay attention to anything. Finally I gave up and focused on that crack under the door.

And then, behold, I saw a drop of water run under the crack. The dryer was working! I jumped up and gave the door a shove, but it still didn't budge. I tried again to pry with the weeding tool. No luck.

Clearly the yang approach wasn't working, so I squatted down and went back to the yin technique with the dryer.

Several eons passed, but eventually the water drops became a trickle and I was able to open the door just enough to stick out my arm and direct the dryer at the ice. Then there was enough room to maneuver the weeding tool and chop off chunks of ice. And finally with a loud squeak the door opened wide and a swath of sun entered the coop.

The chickens immediately went to that sunny spot and started preening. One hen sat down on the hay and closed her eyes in ecstasy. The most timid one burrowed her head under Charlemagne's chest and kept going until she was completely hidden under him. He fluffed out his feathers and stood over her like a mother hen. If chickens could sigh, they would all have been sighing with pleasure. To them, at that moment, the sun truly was a god.

The sight of my flock preening in the sun has stayed with me all day, and made me unaccountably happy. What is it about giving comfort to animals that gives such pleasure? It is not unlike the joy of mothering an infant. The needs are critical but simple, and you know you can fulfill every last one of them.

Alas, infants soon outgrow those simple needs, but some of us never get over the urge to satisfy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dog Salon

This morning, while a blizzard raged outside, I held one of my periodic dog salons. The beauty, not the intellectual kind.

Grooming is not my favorite dog-related activity. I get bored and impatient, and so do the dogs. But grooming has to be done, especially if you have German Shepherds and don't want your house ankle-deep in dog hair.

Reminding myself that this was a sacred task to which I should give all my attention, I spread a sheet on the bedroom floor and got out the box of treats. I always do Wolfie first, to get in the mood. Good soul that he is, he lay on his back and let me go to work, his paw limp in my hand, all the while doing a charming low-register yodeling that I interpret as, “I think perhaps you are going to kill me. Yes, I think that is what you have in mind. Can it be that you are killing me? Oh well, if you really want to, go ahead. But try to be gentle.”

The minute she heard the yodeling and the opening of the treat box, Lexi decided that she was not too old/arthritic/tired to climb the stairs and join us, even if it meant getting her nails clipped. I had to keep her from trampling Wolfie to get to the treats. She retired to the edge of the sheet, looking hungry (she'd had breakfast half an hour earlier) and waiting for her turn.

I released Wolfie and called Lexi. She came and rolled over on her back while keeping her eyes firmly locked on the treats. Doing Lexi's nails is a tedious task, for she hates the clippers and I have to file the nails with sandpaper, which takes a long time. But I tried to attend to what I was doing instead of thinking about what I was going to make for supper, and eventually it was over.

As long as I was covered in nail dust I figured I might as well give both dogs a brushing, especially as I've been noticing major dust bunnies in every corner of the house. My preferred venue for brushing is outdoors, where the wind carries away the hair and the birds can use it for their nests. That means that the dogs don't get brushed much in winter. Mercifully, that is the one season when they don't shed.

As soon as I put the brush on Lexi, however, I realized that she has started her spring shedding, big-time. I brushed her back (got handfuls of long stiff black guard hairs), the back of her hind legs (lovely fine white hairs), the side of her thighs (velvety short tan hairs), her shoulders (ditto), her tail....Do not think for a moment that when I say I brushed her back or her thighs I actually ran out of hair to pull out. It simply means that my arm got tired of brushing in that position, or Lexi got fidgety and I had to brush a different spot. In ten years of brushing Lexi, I have never once run out of loose hair. Sometimes it seems as if she is producing new hair even as I brush, like some torture out of Greek mythology.

Eventually I gave up and released her, then called Wolfie. I got long stiff black guard hairs from his back, quantities of shorter black hairs with fuzzy dark gray undercoat from his hips, short reddish-tan hair from his legs. I brushed and brushed, and the hair kept coming. I tried my best to stay in the moment. This is the point at which I always ask myself, as my forearms begin to cramp, what on earth possessed me to get a second German Shepherd? Why not a labradoodle or a pugle or a shitzypoo—a dog whose hairs will stick to its skin as opposed to its entire environment? I brushed some more. Wolfie's coat is shorter than Lexi's, but amazingly there seems to be just as much of it. I estimate I'd gotten about a third of his loose hair by the time I let him go.

Although I'd been doing my best to catch the hair and throw it into a trash can as I brushed, the sheet was covered with hair, and soft woolly strands were wafting in the air currents above the heater. I looked down at my body and saw that, superficially at least, I had been transformed into a German Shepherd. I wondered if that is how the werewolf legends got started.

I opened the back door and shook the sheet out into the blizzard, which predictably blew the hair and nail clippings back onto me. Working hard to stay in the present I got the sticky roller brush and used up four sticky sheets to metamorphose back to human form.

Nails clipped and coat somewhat in order, the dogs collapsed on the rug and rested while their bodies got to work metabolizing all those treats into more toenails, and a fresh crop of hair.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Vow Of Celibacy

When I lived in Ecuador, the difference between the Spanish and the Ecuadorean school systems caused me to be advanced three grades, so that when I was twelve, my classmates were fifteen-year-old girls. I didn't much like them. I thought they were ridiculous, with their whisperings and their hairbrushes and their bizarre obsession with boys.

I didn't know any teenage boys, (mine was a girls' school, run by nuns) but I was sure I wouldn't like them if I did. I did get to see boys on a daily basis, however, when they followed the school bus on its rounds.

The pupils of the boys' schools had invented the sport of following our school bus on its comings and goings through the cobbled streets of Quito. They didn't follow us in cars, but in motorcycles, which was much more exciting. Motorcycles allowed a clear view of the riders, and offered them the opportunity for daring maneuvers.

I watched the boys revving up their engines and the giggling girls on the bus with a kind of clinical detachment. My only concern was with Sister Imelda, only recently out of the novitiate, who had been given the task of maintaining decorum in the bus as a test of her vocation. She was young and pretty, graceful in her cream habit and black veil, with a small face and enormous green eyes. When the first Vespa came bouncing on the cobblestones, I could see Sister Imelda stiffen up. Soon the Vespa was joined by the roar of a Harley, with two riders at that, and then it seemed that from every corner little scooters and big black motorcycles would swing out and join the cortege, until there were seven or eight or a dozen behind us. As the motorcycles increased in number, Sister Imelda's face would grow red, then redder, then purple. Her green eyes would flash. I would watch in horror and embarrassment as at the next stop she leaned out the window and shrieked “Imbeciles! Asesinos! Vayanse!”

The boys would laugh and gun their engines. The girls would titter and speculate about who was following whom. And Sister Imelda would subside in humiliation, to do it all over the next day. I hated the whole thing: the pimply, yelling boys, the preening girls, the clueless nun. I kept wishing they would put another nun on bus-duty, and give little Sister Imelda a break.

At about that time, I was invited to a party given by friends of my parents'. There, among a crowd of children my age, I found myself noticing a blond, blue-eyed boy who, in turn, seemed to be noticing me. We ran and shrieked and played games until dark. I remember wondering, after the party, why I had had such a terrific time.

Several weeks later, there was another party, and the same group was invited. By then I had figured out the reason for my good time at the first party. In hopes of more delirious fun, I allowed my mother to shampoo my hair and put newly-ironed ribbons on my braids.

Unfortunately, this time HE wasn't there. I was miserable. My former playmates seemed pathetically young. The party went on and on and I felt unhappy, uncomfortable, and unattractive. I couldn't wait to go home.

That night, in my bedroom, I had a revelation. The reason the party had been so awful was that HE hadn't been there. Therefore, if HE, or others like HIM, had such power over my state of mind, my future was not nearly as much under my control as I had assumed. I thought with a shudder of the girls in my class, reduced to their idiotic state by pimply males. Did I want to be like them? No! Did I want to enjoy myself at parties regardless of who was or wasn't there? Yes!

It was a no-brainer: I would simply give up men. I remember quite clearly saying “men,” not “boys.” But, no problem. I could do it. I would do it. I would never let a single day of my life be spoiled by a man. I would be free. I would be me. I made my vow of celibacy, felt much better, and went to sleep.

My lovely descendants are evidence that I did not keep my vow. So is the diary that I kept from ages fifteen to nineteen. By that time I was living in the U.S., going to a co-ed Catholic school, trying to learn a language and a culture and how to be at ease in a body that seemed to mutate from week to week.

It is a wonder to me, reading that diary now, how I ever managed to learn English, or anything else, in those high school years, so besotted was I by the various HE's who hove into my horizons. The hormonal tides into which I had merely dipped my toes in Ecuador had rushed in and engulfed me so that not just my body, but my very brain was soaked through and submerged. I had turned into one of those idiots I had ridiculed just a couple of years earlier.

Thinking back, though my teenage self embarrasses me, I have a great affection for the pig-tailed, tree-climbing me, who managed to feel shame and sympathy for an adult, and who felt victorious and unassailable in her own innocence--a kind of baby Artemis hunting alone in the woods, blissfully unaware of the coming storm.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Paying Attention

As this long, cold winter stretches on, I am cultivating the art of paying attention.

Here's my winter whine: with the extreme cold my sphere of activity has shrunk dramatically. My long walks have become short ones; my hours in the garden have become minutes tending indoor plants; the time I used to spend moving the chickens to different pastures and watching their tribal ceremonies has shrunk to quick sorties to the coop serve hot gruel and gather the eggs before they freeze and crack. I don't much like this cramped existence. I want to go out and DO something...but it's cold.

And that is why I'm training myself to pay attention.

Stimulation, or the lack of it, is a matter of perspective. We've all heard of prisoners who survived years of isolation by going inward. At the other extreme are those benighted souls who need constant music, chatter, and novelty to keep their brains from drying up.

An only child ensconced in a city apartment, I used to complain often of being bored. But I got little sympathy from my father. “Bored?” he would say. “Intelligent people are never bored. Think!” At the time, I found his advice incomprehensible. Now, knowing that he spent the three years of the Spanish Civil War in hiding—he left his apartment only once between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five—I can see that he must have become a master of looking inward to stave off boredom if not insanity.

So, in this winter of my discontent, I'm looking inward, and looking around. Also touching and smelling and sensing, then looking around some more. Warming my hands with a new-laid egg. Rejoicing that even in the coldest days the sun now noticeably heats our enclosed porch. Making sure I look out in the late afternoon, when the snow glows pink in the lowering sun. Building a fire as dusk chills the house, and feeling comfort in this primitive act. Watching the dogs, those sybarites, stretch out groaning before the hearth.

And on and on. A woman could spend a happy winter just noticing stuff in a room.

Which is a good thing, because I'm cultivating the art of attention not just to get me through the winter, but through the coming months and maybe years. The economic crisis is going to feel like a long, long winter, and cabin fever will become pandemic. Deprived of trips to the mall, trips to the movies, trips to the restaurant, and trips to the Caribbean, how will we preserve our sanity, let alone our good humor?

By sticking close to home, looking around and paying attention, that's how. By sensing and savoring the myriad objects, comforts and pleasures that we've ignored because we were on an endless search for new ones. By getting blissfully lost in the universe of the familiar.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Last week I made beef stock out of three big marrow bones. After the stock had simmered overnight, I strained it, filled eight quart jars with the base for future soups and easy suppers, and put them in the freezer. I scooped up the mushy vegetables and fed them to the chickens. Then I called Wolfie and Lexi to the back door, handed them each a greasy bone and sent them outside. I put the third bone in a plastic bag and stored it in the freezer.

Lexi lay down on the snow close to the house and set to gnawing her bone. Wolfie, knowing her propensity for sidling up and taking things from him, carried his a safe distance away. They gnawed for a long time, but eventually came back in, leaving the bones out on the snow.

Over the next few days, when she was outside, Lexi worked on her bone some more. Wolfie, that goof-ball, lost his.

Tonight, when they came in from their post-dinner outing, Lexi brought her bone inside. I immediately went on alert. There were now two dogs in the house, and only one (relatively) fresh bone . (There are plenty of thoroughly-gnawed, well-aged bones all over our floors, a hazard to us bipeds.) Bones can be a touchy subject with dogs, and I didn't want Wolfie and Lexi to have a fight over this one.

So I got the third bone out of the freezer and handed it to Wolfie. He was delighted, and clearly realized that this was a bone hitherto untouched by any dog. Lexi immediately lost interest in her bone and started looking intently at the new one.

At that point, to remind her that she had her own bone, I started to pick it up and she growled softly at me (Lexi only ever growls very, very softly). I admonished her, made her sit, took the bone, then handed it back to her. She gnawed on it for a few minutes. Then, quietly she started walking towards Wolfie, but I hissed at her and she gave up, for the moment.

I had to hiss at her several more times. Then I got busy putting more wood in the stove and when I looked up, Lexi had Wolfie's bone. But Wolfie had Lexi's bone! They had made the switch, peacefully and amicably, while I wasn't watching. Perhaps, I reflected, I get over-involved in dog issues, making sure that Lexi doesn't take advantage of Wolfie's good nature, protecting her from his size and weight and energy. Maybe they really do know how to work things out for themselves. Maybe I should be more laissez faire.

As I was mulling this over, Wolfie started whining. He needed to go out--truly, madly, immediately. So I let him out. Guess what he was carrying when he came in? His old bone! His dear old ice-encrusted bone that we thought he had lost. His old-but-not- forgotten bone, SO much better than the new bone.

He is gnawing on it loudly as I write, and Lexi is lying on her bed in front of the stove, giving him sharp looks because he sounds like he's having way too much fun.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Nose In Winter

Took advantage of a heat wave (35F and no wind) today and went for a ramble in the woods behind the house, with Wolfie.

The snow was deep, and the woods were silent. Wolfie led me to the remains—a few orange feathers on the snow—of the hen that died in early winter. I had given her an eco-burial by leaving her under a tree and hoping that some creature would make a meal of her. The snow all around the feathers was crisscrossed with tracks, mostly fox and coyote.

While Wolfie methodically smelled the feathers, the tracks, and the tree trunks against which something had sprayed or scratched, I smelled nothing. I heard nothing. In winter the ears, but especially the nose are largely deprived of stimuli by Nature. (The human nose, that is. The canine nose is never deprived of anything.)

Inside my house, however, it's a different story. This winter's challenge is to keep alive a large rosemary bush that I brought inside in the fall. Rosemary cannot survive Vermont winters outdoors, but it is almost as difficult to get it to survive indoors.

Because my plant-guru friend Dona had admonished me that rosemary hates to be moved, at Christmas we had to jam the tree in a less-than optimal corner, because I refused to upset the rosemary by moving it. A native of the semi-arid Mediterranean, rosemary promptly gives up the ghost if it is over-watered. On the other hand, the indoor climate in winter can be Sahara-like, and rosemary's needle-thin leaves will dry up and drop off even as you fill the watering can. Every morning, in my pajamas, I can be seen spritzer in hand spritzing the rosemary, trying my best to give the effect of morning dew, and looking for signs of trouble.

I am happy to report that, after some initial pouting, the rosemary has settled in for the duration, and covered itself all over with tiny azure blooms. But the best part of the rosemary bush is that when I stroke it, or when Wolfie whacks it with his tail, it releases the smell of a Mediterranean hillside.

Next to the rosemary huddles a smaller lavender plant that I brought inside because I felt sorry for it, even though certain kinds of lavender are supposed to be able to take the winters here. It's starting to look kind of scraggly, despite careful waterings and spritzings, but I think that as the light grows stronger in the south-facing sun room in which it lives, it will cheer up. Meanwhile, it too gives off that Mediterranean smell.

Then there are the lemon/rose-scented geraniums. Unlike the rosemary and lavender, these are practically indestructible. Give them a bit of sun and they will grow as if they had been designed by Nature to live indoors. To keep their bushy shape, I periodically pinch off their top leaves, which makes my fingers smell delicious. Then I carefully dry and store the prunings for future pot-pourris. I've heard that you can pour boiling water over scented-geranium leaves and make tea, but I haven't tried that yet.

Lastly, there is the orange peel, which I save and set out to dry in a basket on the dining room table. When it's brittle I snap it into tiny pieces and store it in an old blue canning jar, where it looks nice. Orange peel works well as a fixative for pot-pourri, and smells terrific.

Rosemary, lavender, orange, geraniums.... I forgot to mention my little laurel tree! In the midst of a Vermont winter, I am surrounded by the plants and smells of a Catalan summer. A small miracle, but it will help me survive until lilac-time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Today is laundry day. Years ago, I decided that it would save energy, both mine and the planet's, if I did laundry once every two weeks. The downside of this is that on laundry day I do a minimum of six big loads of wash, which leaves me little room for higher pursuits.

My generation of women did not consider housekeeping a worthwhile, let alone an interesting activity. We were post-June Cleaver and pre-Martha Stewart. We wanted to do impressive things—fight battles, break barriers, have careers. If there was laundry to be done it would get done in a rush, as we simultaneously ate breakfast and wrote an article. Better still, it would be done by our mate. We were into saving time and energy, freeing ourselves for the important stuff.

By their contrast with the aridity of academic life, certain domestic tasks did strike me as pleasant, even beautiful—making bread, for instance, and growing vegetables. But even as I was doing these things, my mind was on other matters—mostly classes and committees—and I had a nagging feeling that it was somehow inappropriate and unscholarly of me to enjoy any aspect of housekeeping.

Long after leaving campus, I am sorry to report that the nagging feeling is still with me. As I go about my business, be it something I enjoy—hanging the laundry out to dry—or dislike—putting the laundry away—I usually feel that I should be doing something else, that there is a better, more productive way of using my time. If I'm walking the dogs, I should be training them. If I'm reading, I should be writing. If I'm folding laundry, I should be exercising. It's an exhausting and depressing way to live.

Then the other day, quite by chance, I heard a Benedictine monk on the radio say the following: “That instinct, that sort of sacramental instinct to find something holy in everything, runs deep in us [Benedictines].'s tended to make us want to do our best whether it's a humble task or...something more exalted, like a great work of art.”

Sacramental instinct...something holy in everything—the words kept tumbling around in my mind. Of course they brought up echoes of Buddhism—stay in the moment, be present in everything you do. Of course they reminded me that this attitude of reverent attention is the very foundation of aesthetics. But for some reason this time the words were still with me when I woke up the next morning.

For the last couple of days I've been walking around with a different conversation inside my head. I say to myself, “I am carefully washing these vegetables to put into the stock,” instead of “I should have already chopped these. They should be in the stock right now.” I say, “I am doing a good job of brushing the dogs' teeth,” instead of “Hurry up with that brushing. You should be clipping their nails.” It's kind of a forced conversation, and it certainly does not come spontaneously. But maybe someday it will.

For now, the petty tyrant that used to lurk inside my cranium has been replaced by a kindly Benedictine monk. But whereas the tyrant was self-supporting, the monk is going to need regular meals and quite a bit of TLC. I like my monk, and I hope he will stick around. For his supper tonight I will offer him the act of towel-folding, mindfully done.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Commuting To DC

Today those crowds on the Mall brought it all back. Throughout the 1990s I commuted to my job, just a couple of blocks from where the Inauguration took place. I ate many a lunch on the Mall benches as the tourists in their fanny packs and pastel knits and the fitness-conscious bureaucrats in running shoes passed in front of me.

My metro stop was L'Enfant Plaza, named after the French architect who designed the harmonious plan of downtown DC. But there was nothing harmonious about the metro station, either in feeling or design. It was a cavernous place full of stressed-out people.

I was surprised today to hear visitors to DC say what a friendly, smiling city it is. That is certainly not how I experienced it. The metro, though clean and modern, carried sullen crowds, and the sullenness, I am sorry to say, had a racial component. Although I saw no overt incidents, there was nonetheless an unmistakable chill. Unfortunately, the feeling carried into my office, where the support staff was 100% African American, and the professional staff 90% white.

Maybe it was a failure of leadership. Maybe, despite the frequent baby showers and Christmas parties and bowling events, the professional staff was clumsy in its outreach efforts. Maybe we were naïve. But we never achieved a sense of ease or fellowship with the members of the support staff.

As I watched today's inauguration I wondered how much difference it will make in the way people interact on the metro platforms, on the escalators, in the offices. Will Obama's serenity and aplomb spill over into the country as a whole, making everyone feel more confident, more gracious in requesting and in answering those requests?

I know that this first Black president will make a difference in the way the US is perceived in the rest of the world. I know that he will make a difference in our foreign policy. He may make a difference in the economy. And I hope he will make a difference in the way people interact on the streets of DC, in the metro, and in the labyrinths of the bureaucracy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Goat Nostalgia

I've been missing my goats. In this cold, terrible weather, I've been missing my goats.

The last time I had goats was just over a year ago, in Vermont. I had two lovely Nubian does—long, elegant bodies, refined necks, pendulous ears, distinguished Roman noses, and “textbook” udders.

Parsley and Sage were twin sisters who had never been apart from the moment of conception. They were fabulous milkers. And that was the problem. Although I bred only one of them each year, which meant only one of them was milking, I got a gallon of sweet, high-butterfat milk a day, seven days a week. That is a lot of milk, especially for a household of two.

So I made cheese. Lots of cheese: fresh cheeses flavored with garlic and rosemary, mozzarella, and even a farmhouse cheddar that had to be aged for months in our basement and turned out amazingly well. Cheese was a handy thing to have. Not only did we eat it, but our friends liked it. When people dropped in I had something more than peanuts to offer them. And homemade cheese makes the best hostess gift in the world.

But seven gallons of milk a week was a lot to keep up with. I was always in a race to dispose of the milk in the fridge before the next milking. I fed milk to the dogs and the chickens. I gave milk and cheese to the local food bank. And I poured the leftover whey from cheese making into the vegetable garden (which in turn produced huge yields of veggies).

Then one terrible day Sage strangled herself to death, and Parsley went crazy with sorrow and loneliness. Goats are herd animals, and are miserable living alone. If I was going to keep Parsley, I needed to get another goat immediately, and hope that they would get along. On the other hand, there was a good woman nearby who dearly wanted a milker of Parsley's line. And so, in sorrow and exhaustion, I let Parsley go.

Being without goats is not unlike being without a dog. A goat that has been bottle-fed from birth thinks that you are her mother, her friend, her love. She will come and rub herself against you. She will climb on your lap if you let her. She will follow you everywhere. I used to take Parsley and Sage on walks, leading them to the hedgerows where their favorite stuff grew, but no favorite berry or thorn bush would hold their attention if I disappeared from view. The minute they lost sight of me they would scream like lost toddlers in a supermarket and come after me as fast as their legs would carry them.

In winter I would take them hot water spiked with cider vinegar. They would leap up as soon as they heard me coming, more eager for my rubs and scratches than for the grain and hay I delivered. After their meal they would settle down to ruminate, Buddha-like, and I would sit with them and try to emulate their serenity.

In spring I would take them out to the field, where they would get drunk on new grass. I would sit and watch them eat and feel utterly content. There is nothing more calming than sitting in a field with a couple of grazing animals. It is no wonder that our spiritual literature is full of sheep safely grazing and pastures where we may rest.

Then came dandelion day, when I would go out to the yellow-dotted field with a gallon jug to collect dandelions for making wine. I would let the goats come with me and they would eat until I thought that their entire insides must be a glowing yellow. It took two hours to gather a gallon of blossoms. By the time I finished the goats were full to bursting, and waddled off to their stall to digest in peace.

Parsley and Sage were born herbalists. They knew exactly what to eat and when to eat it. As soon as the St. John's Wort bloomed, they were on it like they hadn't eaten in a month. This would go on for three or four days. Then, while to me the plant looked as good and fresh as ever, they would turn away from it as if it were poison. For a while, when the moon was waxing or the planets were in syzygy, they would gorge on clover. And then suddenly they would refuse to touch it.

Spring culminated in the birth of babies, a nerve-wracking, exhausting, wonderful time. My sheep- and goat-herding friends, who coolly oversee dozens of births, must have laughed at my anxiety. But in these things, as in killing chickens, practice makes perfect, and I hadn't had a lot of practice.

So a couple of weeks before the due date I would set up the baby monitor in our bedroom, and make vain sorties before dawn sure that the birth was in progress, but it would just be the goats munching, or grunting as they ruminated. Sooner or later, however, I would hear the unmistakable sounds of birthing, and I would rush out bearing iodine and vaseline, and string and scissors for the umbilical cord, yelling to Ed to come with towels, lots of towels.

I would stand there talking softly to the laboring mother, giving a few empathetic grunts myself, and when things looked like they would go on forever, a weird, skinny, shiny thing would slither onto the hay. I would sweep it up immediately and after much rubbing and iodine dipping and colostrum sucking the most amazing little creature would emerge, all new and lively and ready to take on the world.

Like I said, I miss my goats.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Muse Takes A Nap

On ordinary days, as I go about my business I have at least a couple of topics for posts running through my head. On less ordinary days, themes and phrases tumble around in my brain like lottery tickets just before a drawing.

But yesterday was different. I could not think of a single thing to write about.

Now I know very well that there's no such thing as nothing to write about. Not for nothing did I spend a couple of decades studying and then teaching French lit, many of whose masters prided themselves on making something out of nothing (“faire quelque chose de rien”). A hint of adultery here, a spot of introspection there, and voila: a 500-page masterpiece.

On a day when I feel only some reluctance to write, I just focus on whatever is in front of my nose—say, my hand—and pretty soon stuff comes to me: how it's getting bonier, how it reminds me of my father, how I've never been able to grow my nails, or keep polish on them for more than five minutes. And each of those thoughts can take me in a dozen different directions.

But yesterday my reluctance was absolute. I had run up against a stone wall—not a hard thing to do in Vermont—and I couldn't even write about the wall. My Muse, I suspected, was hiding behind it.

Sometimes if I don't feel like writing I go do something else for a while, then give the Muse a whistle and she comes running. I spent the entire day yesterday doing something else, then whistling, then doing something else again. But she didn't show.

Eventually, I gave up. The Muse, I decided, was taking a nap. Maybe she was cold. After all, my hens have stopped laying the last couple of frigid days. Why shouldn't the Muse get a break too? So she did, and today, I'm glad to say, she's hovering near.

When your Muse yawns, how do you react?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The New Gym Ladies

“Don't you just love this aqua-cise?” the lady in the locker room says to her friend. “I've gotten so addicted I come in every day, even when there isn't a class, and swim by myself.”

I'm impressed. A sidelong glance reveals her to be no naiad: she's almost as wide as she is tall, and in her none-too-well-preserved seventies. “Let me tell you,“ she goes on, groaning as she bends over to tie her shoe, “walking yesterday was no fun. None of the sidewalks had been cleared, so I had to walk on the road ...”

I repress a gasp. I almost killed myself just crossing the parking lot to the gym just now, and she was out walking yesterday? On the icy, slushy roads of Granville, NY? What kind of woman is this?

She is one of the New Gym Ladies. I see them on my way to the locker room. They're standing in the shallow end of the pool in their flowery suits, their breasts bobbing just above the water line, lifting their heavy arms over their heads. Over their gray, curly, sparsely-haired heads.

I see them in the exercise room, large of thigh and heavy of breast, spending surprisingly long times on the treadmill, earphones on, watching the soaps. As they make their way from one weight machine to another, they walk with the swaying gait of those whose hips hurt badly. But they flex their biceps, and work their triceps, and squeeze and lift and crunch. And they carefully wipe down each machine after they've used it.

New Gym Ladies, wait for me! I'm not that far behind you. I was in high school when you were in college, maybe, in college when you entered the motherhood cloister and disappeared from view. But here you are now, doing something no woman your age has ever done before: working out, lifting weights, growing muscles. You're not in this for looks—a trivial thing--but for survival.

I'm amazed and touched and frightened by you. Because you are my future and you're showing me that it's both appalling, and not so bad.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Things To Do Before Spring

The Writer Magazine has an on-line column called Web Savvy that I thought I ought to read, but to get access I had to subscribe to the print edition of the magazine. Now I get The Writer every month, and even though I don't find it terribly compelling, I feel obligated to skim it so as not to miss some nugget of writerly wisdom. I should take a look at the January issue before the February one arrives.

And I should make it a practice to read at least one Web Savvy post every day. That's the reason for the subscription in the first place, and it would make me more web literate. Reading a single post every day won't be a big deal.

It was Web Savvy that introduced me to Technorati. I've looked at their site a couple of times, but it's like reading something in a foreign language about concepts from another planet. Still, if I read a little every day, maybe I'll begin to understand it and I'll be able to improve my blog.

Speaking of which, I should also make it a daily practice to check out Problogger, where I learned everything I know about blogging. One thing they recommend over and over is to read other blogs.

Therefore, to the list of blogs that I read because I like them, I should add some blogs about chickens and dogs, since I write about these topics often. And blogs about women's spirituality, too, as well as about simple/frugal/sustainable living. I must keep current on these subjects.

For example, I heard yesterday, on NPR's Speaking of Faith, that the program's website has a blog on the spiritual repercussions of the economic crisis. Can't miss that. Then this morning I heard a feature about Wangari Maathai who got the Nobel Peace prize for encouraging women in Kenya to plant trees. Women, trees, sustainability—what could be closer to my heart? Must find out more. And Julia Alvarez, who lives in Vermont, will be speaking on VPR at noon. Can't forget to listen to her.

Maybe one of these evenings I'll finish the New Yorker article I left open on the coffee table (I think a new issue has arrived since then—I lose count). And I have got to read Nourishing Traditions, the cook-and-nutrition book that, among other things, tells you it's good to eat lots of butter. And speaking of books, it would be fun to read Updike's The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to The Witches. Maybe the library has it.

But I shouldn't be giving in to the lure of the print media. I'm so hopelessly behind on the electronic kind. For instance, I know what a gadget is, on Blogger, but what is a widget? And Facebook. Not a day goes by that someone doesn't sing its praises. I actually have a Facebook page, but I haven't done anything with it. I don't understand the concept. Is the point of Facebook to boil human experience down to a single sentence? And is Twitter (which I have never seen) the ultimate expression of this trend, so that even words are eliminated and expression is reduced to bird song?

I don't know the answer to any of this, but I'd better find out now, while snow is on the ground. Already the sun doesn't set until after five. Before I know it, it will be time to plant the spinach.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Nice Guy

Among farm animals, the male of the species is often problematic. In the days before artificial insemination, dairy farmers were often killed by their herd sires. Male goats stink to high heaven in the fall. Rams ram anything and anybody in sight. Though small in size, roosters have a surfeit of testosterone that tends to breed trouble as well as chicks. Our first rooster was so aggressive that we called him The Ayatollah. My goat-milking pail has a large dent on it from the day I threw it at him in self defense. I'm sorry to say that all I got out of the incident was a dented pail. The Ayatollah was undeterred in his attempts to kill me until we made him into soup.

But he was not our last rooster. A couple of years ago we had an elegant black-and-white striped Barred Rock. He was not aggressive towards us, but he fell in love with one of his wives, forsaking all others. This meant that the Chosen One had to submit to his advances dozens of times every day. As a result, the feathers on her back split, broke and fell off. When she started looking haggard, stressed, and miserable I knew the rooster had to go.

The moment he left, a conventual peace settled over the flock. The girls went about their business hunting bugs, laying eggs, and taking dust baths with nary a scuffle, and very little noise. Life was good, if a little dull, for quite a while.

But then the yellow hen, the matriarch of the flock, got it in her head to hatch some eggs. She fluffed up her feathers and settled on the nest with a determined look on her face. Nothing I did--taking the eggs away every day, getting her off the nest every chance I got--would dissuade her. She didn't care that the eggs, there being no rooster around, weren't fertile. She wanted babies, and she was hoping for a miracle.

Then one spring afternoon, the fox carried off a hen that had gotten out of the fence, even as a pair of hawks whistled in the sky. That's when I decided that I had to get another husband for my flock.

I went to check out a Buff Orpington rooster that was for sale. He was gorgeous, and enormous, ponderous and clumsy as a wrestler, with golden plumage and a huge red comb.

Is he aggressive?” I asked the farmer. “Not towards me,” he answered, “but my wife has to take a stick with her when she goes to get the eggs.” Seeing a doubtful look cross my face, and eager to make a sale, he opened the coop door and said “Here, why don't you go in and see for yourself.”

I walked in and the rooster came rushing at my legs. And here my addiction to “The Dog Whisperer” bore fruit, for I instantly reared up to my full height, stuck out my chest, took a step forward with my arm and forefinger extended, and emitted an explosive “Pshhhhttt!” that Cesar would have been proud of.

It worked. The rooster backed off, and that evening he was with our flock. I named him Charlemagne.

My hens took to him instantly. They followed him around even though, not having had access to pasture in his former life, he wasn't quite sure what to do in our expanse of grass and its teeming insect life. But he soon figured it out, and now whenever he finds a morsel that he thinks the girls will like, he calls them over with motherly clucks, and doesn't eat until they have had their fill.

He is a perfect gentleman. His not overly-loud crow is only heard occasionally. He doesn't play favorites, but distributes his favors equitably among the hens, yet seems more restrained than his predecessors. If a hawk flies over, he hustles everybody into the coop. And when night falls, he leads the way to the roosts.

When I bought Charlemagne, I also bought two hens from his former flock, to keep him company and because I needed more layers. The two new hens got a less enthusiastic reception from our flock that the rooster did, and for several days there were scuffles over food and roosting space and various other matters of etiquette.

I was filling the feeder one evening as the flock was settling in for the night, and I noticed that the two new hens hopped up on the roost on either side of Charlemagne, where they proceeded to burrow under his wings like chicks under their mother. So eagerly did they burrow and push that Charlemagne lost his balance and fell off the roost. No sooner had he waddled over to the other roost and perched upon it than the two hens hopped up beside him and tried to hide under his wings, making him lose his balance again. This went on and on until I left the coop, hoping that when it got dark enough, they would all go to sleep and Charlemagne would get some rest.

Ever since the Cesar Millan confrontation, Charlemagne has been the soul of politeness towards me. The flock seems different somehow with him around, more animated. More like a family instead of a convent. And the hens are laying fertile eggs—I can see when I break them open the tiny light-colored spot with a circle around it that indicates that, if incubated, this egg would produce a chick.

With any luck, come spring we will have a mother hen bustling about with her little ones. The only trouble is, nobody in the flock is giving any signs of going broody. They are too busy running after Charlemagne to even think of sitting on the nest.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Peasant Madonnas

In my native Catalonia, as in much of Europe, the countryside is dotted with shrines to local statues of the Virgin Mary. These are very old (Romanesque era), or copies of very old sculptures, and some of them are black. The most famous, Our Lady of Montserrat, is affectionately known in Catalan as La Moreneta, The Little Dark One, because both she and the Infant she carries are black.

My parents were married, and I had my first communion, at another such shrine, this one much smaller than Montserrat, dedicated to Our Lady of the Fields. The shrine is a one-room whitewashed church adjoining the sacristan's house. And next to that is a spring. This Virgin is not black, and the statue is a copy of a copy of a copy, but she has the same fierce, other-worldly look as the others, and the same story.

The story of what I call the “peasant Madonnas” is, with small variations, always the same. A peasant, or a shepherd, or a woodcutter takes refuge from the sun under some trees by a spring. As he rests, he becomes aware of a Presence amidst the foliage, a Lady who asks him to build her a shrine on that very spot, and then vanishes. The peasant/shepherd/woodcutter takes off for the village, where he breathlessly tells his tale. The priest, the mayor, and a crowd of villagers follow him to the spring, and there they find the statue of the Virgin.

The priest alerts the bishop, the mayor tells the governor, and among them they decide that the spring is no place for the Virgin and her shrine. She needs to be in a more public, more formal, more important spot. She needs to be in town.

But when they go to fetch the statue, she becomes so heavy that the strongest men, with the biggest horses, cannot budge her. So the notables throw up their hands and build the shrine right where she wants it.

Who are these peasant Madonnas? Why are there so many of them, and why do they favor trees and springs? Why do they insist on staying in the countryside?

The word “peasant” has the same root as “pagan,” which originally meant “country-dweller,” the countryside being the last refuge of the old religions. When Christianity eventually evicted the naiads and dryads and satyrs, the country-dwelling Madonnas took over, guarding the old sacred spots—under trees, near springs—and offering the toiling peasant a place of rest and refreshment.

Whether they are dryads in disguise, or manifestations of the Goddess Herself, I think of these country Madonnas, stubbornly clinging to their bit of earth, as the patron saints of environmentalists. They affirm the sacredness of wild spaces and invite us to share their mystery.

There is a huge old pine tree on a south-facing slope in our woods. Whenever I go by it, I look around its roots and up into its branches, hoping for a glimpse of something—I don't know what—that I wish were there.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Frugal Chicken

My grandmother—the one who lived on a farm, in Catalonia, a long, long time ago—used to raise chickens and rabbits sort of like you and I raise tomatoes and green beans, because they were cheap and tasted good. My grandparents were not poor, and they lived literally surrounded by food, from olives and grapes to pigs, but not one crumb ever went to waste.

Witness what my grandmother did with a chicken. I don't remember watching her kill one, or what she did with the feathers, but I know that she saved the blood for the pigs. The lungs and intestines went to them too. But the liver and gizzard were saved for the table (I can hardly stand to say the word “gizzard” now, much less eat one). And as a special treat for me, her only beloved granddaughter, she saved...the testes. Yes, I grew up on chicken testes, and I'm o.k.

Every chicken yielded at least two dishes: a meat dish, and a broth. The meat dish included, along with breasts and legs, the comb. I still remember the look of it on the serving platter, kind of decorative, as if it had been cut out with scissors. I used to have dibs on the comb, too.

Into the broth went the de-combed head and the feet. Mercifully, these were strained out after they had yielded all their substance, and given to the pigs. But I still remember those pale legs with their pale nails, floating in the simmering broth.

My grandmother's chickens lived a good life, scratching and scavenging, and they died with dignity. The dignity came from the respect with which their remains were treated. Nothing was ignored, everything went to nourish someone, whether pig or human.

Unfortunately, the omnivorous habits of my childhood did not last. Today I can only eat chicken if the part I'm eating is anatomically unrecognizable. But my grandmother's attitude towards food did stay with me. Paradoxically, one of the reasons I have chickens now is so they'll eat our leftovers, then turn them into manure with which to grow our vegetables, so we can eat and produce more leftovers to feed the chickens, and have nothing go to waste, ever. My grandmother never mentioned the cycle of Nature, but she was firmly rooted in it. Those roots anchor me too, and in this economic climate, that may be more than just a figure of speech.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dump Diving And Other Post-Modern Arts

Ed and I were sorting our recyclables at the dump on a frigid day recently, when I stumbled on two boxes of what looked, under a thick layer of greasy dust, like old canning jars. I peered closer and sure enough, there must have been over a dozen in all, both clear glass and blue, their metal bails and glass lids intact. Some were “Lightning,” a brand I'd never heard of before.

How could anybody throw out such a treasure? Didn't he know how fabulous old canning jars look filled with dried red peppers, or pasta, or dried rose petals? I asked the attendant if it was all right to take some of the jars, and he said yes, grinning at my excitement. And I was excited, sort of the way I imagine morel hunters feel when they come upon an especially good patch. This was my first experience with what I believe is called “dump diving,” and I loved it.

I got into this something-for-(almost)-nothing mode in the fall, when the economy was worsening and everyone worried about the cost of heating oil. That prompted me to attend the rummage sale at a nearby village, where I purchased a collection of thick woolen sweaters, for an average of $1.50 apiece, that are seeing me through a cold winter in a chilly house.

The first frosts came around Halloween, and the chickens ran out of bugs and grass to forage as the cost of store-bought chicken food rose. Everywhere I looked, though, people's porches were festooned with carved pumpkins destined for the compost pile, or worse yet, the trash. So we got permission and scavenged a bunch of jack o'lanterns that kept the chickens happy, and their egg-yolks bright orange, for weeks.

Again, it was the chickens who inspired me to ask for my first “doggy bag” at a restaurant, something that, much to Ed's amusement, I had always considered declasse. Now, if even a single french fry remains on my plate, I ask to take it home.

Ed and I were in the truck this afternoon and heard a woman on NPR who had furnished and decorated a 3,000-square-foot McMansion with items from thrift shops, from furniture to toys to clothing hanging in the closets. She did this to support thrift shops that give their proceeds to charity, and to demonstrate that you can have something for almost nothing.

And where were Ed and I going while listening to this? We were on our way to a place that makes wooden pallets and lets us scavenge discarded sticks of wood to use as kindling for our stove.

A friend and I are collecting instances of our grandmothers' thrifty arts, long forgotten ways of making-do that are now being, or should be, resurrected. Here's an instance from my own grandmother: when bottom sheets got worn in the middle (these were the flat kind that you had to tuck under the mattress), she would cut them in half longitudinally and sew the original edges together, so that the fabric that was still in good shape was now in the center of the bed. I still have the remnants of one such sheet, made of homespun. (I were to weave a sheet with my own hands, I too would be extremely reluctant to throw it out.)

Women used to spend lots of time darning, especially socks. I've said in an earlier post that I'm too impatient to darn socks. But I did once make a terrific sweater for my small dog , Mojo, out of an old sock.

There's a substantial collection of wine corks in my kitchen drawer. I wonder what they might be good for? I can't bear to throw them out.

If you have any old, or even new, grandmotherly tricks, pass them on!