Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meditation Comes In Handy

I've been on a meditation tear for the last three months or so, sitting half an hour every morning on the floor in my study, with Wolfie curled up against me and Bisou snoozing on the bed (if I close the door and don't let them in they sit in the hallway and make pitiful sounds).  This is the longest stretch of daily meditation I've ever done, but it's still mostly a wrestling match with my monkey mind while my breath refuses to "come and go naturally."  So I've been going on blind faith that somehow this is doing some good.

Yesterday I went to the dentist to have a crown and a filling replaced.  For an hour and a half (I checked my watch) I sat in the chair with my head tilted down and my feet tilted up and my mouth open as far as it would go--no, farther--while the dentist and his assistant drilled and sprayed and vacuumed and said "bite down, please," and then drilled some more.

I was lying there with my eyes closed and sort of scanning my body for points of tension and then one of the phrases I sometimes say when I meditate popped into my head, "May all beings be at ease," and I said it a few times.  Then it occurred to me how lucky I was to have all my teeth, to be lying with not a twinge of pain while these two gentle people did their best to give me a toothache-free future, and to live in a century when these things were possible.

I was feeling grateful and dreamy and as though there were three of us working on the crown and the filling:  the dentist, his assistant, and I.  During a break in the drilling I heard him mumble into his mask something ending in "...so relaxed," and then the assistant laughed and said "If she were any more relaxed, she'd be asleep."

At the end, when she was putting in the temporary crown, the assistant said "It's so much easier to work when the patient is relaxed.  How did you do it?"   I hesitated whether to tell her the truth, but I finally said I meditated.

"I've read about meditation," she said, "but I always think my mind would be thinking about all the things I've got to do."

"Oh, don't worry about that," I answered.  "It happens to everybody.  It's just monkey mind."

She gave me a look, and then said "Be careful when you floss on that side.  You don't want to pull your temporary out."

Monday, June 27, 2011

In Which, With Trepidation, I Broach A New Topic

A number of people who know me well have asked, "Why don't you write about CFS?"  Although Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the central factor of my existence, and has been for many years, I have mentioned it in passing but I have never really written about it.

The truth is that, whenever it lets me, I like to forget about the thing.  After sixteen years of it, I can hardly tell you how much it bores me, and I can imagine how it must bore those who hear about it.  I disclose it to new acquaintances only on a need-to-know basis, such as when at the last minute I have to cancel going somewhere with someone.  They are invariably surprised when they find out I have CFS.  "You?  But that can't be!  I'd never have guessed it."  That's o.k. with me.  I like to pass.

And that is what I have been doing in this blog, mostly out of fear of boring you, my readers, to death.  But lately I've started to think that maybe this well-intentioned pretense that I lead a 100% idyllic life on my Vermont hilltop ignores a major portion of what makes me who I am.  Besides, with 800,000 people in the U.S. alone having been diagnosed with the illness (and who knows how many more wandering around wondering what is wrong with them), what I have to say might prove helpful to someone.

These days, I do very little reading about CFS.  A couple of times a year I scan the medical literature to check if there is something I should mention to my doctor (there usually isn't).  I have found that a steady diet of the stuff literally worsens my symptoms.  There is a lot of writing being done by CFS sufferers themselves, and that too I tend to ignore.  Quite often it is a depressing catalogue of assorted but very real miseries, and filled with anger, mostly justified, at the medical establishment. 

My writing about CFS will necessarily mention at least some of its miseries.  But there will be no anger.  I have been lucky in that, since I was diagnosed in 1994, I have not encountered a single insensitive or skeptical doctor.  Although they have not been able to cure or even alleviate my symptoms, and some have erred on the side of over-medicating, the doctors I have consulted have been well-intentioned people trying to deal with a condition for which no cure exists.  And I have been extremely lucky in that from the very beginning colleagues, family and friends have done what they could to help me.  Best of all, they have believed me, even when I haven't believed myself. 

These days, I think of living with CFS in existential terms.  The disease brings into relief many basic questions relevant to the human condition.  For example, if action is essential to my being, what is left of me when I cannot act?   How do I live when, as I fall asleep at night, I don't know whether the next day I am going to be bedridden or "fine"?  Where exactly is the line between acceptance and defeat?  You get the idea.

I am at the moment just coming out of several days in relapse.  It's a dangerous time because I tend to try to catch up on all the things I've wanted to do, such as writing on this blog.  I have to remind myself to stop even when I would like to go on.  Which is what I'm doing now.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Twilight With Frogs

These long, sunny evenings I sit by the pond with a book and a glass of wine, watching the frogs. 

Ours have got to be the most blissed-out, trusting amphibians on the planet.  Bisou, whose obsession with them continues unabated, will come streaking out the back door looking for them.  If she's lucky, one will be sunning itself on the slate slabs, and she runs over and nudges it with her nose.  The frog then gives one or two desultory hops, Bisou gives it another nudge, the frog hops again, and so on until it reaches the edge of the pond and dives in.

Bisou then runs around the perimeter of the pond, looking for frogs that are clinging to the pond's edge or to a close-by lilypad.  She leans way over, her ears waving like algae in the scummy water, until she can touch noses with a frog (sometimes she falls in).  Eventually she wearies of this game and goes off to graze.  (What, doesn't your dog gorge on grass?)

One or two frogs will then do their amazing frog kick to the side of the pond and heave themselves out of the water, looking like members of a swimming team at the end of practice.  Periodically, one of them lets out a croak that sounds like a rubber band snapping against a drum head.  In the low rays of the setting sun, the frogs shine like jewels, green enamel from the waist up, burnished copper from the waist down.  If I get close enough I can look right into their golden eyes.


In the forest of mint behind me a toad is singing its not-quite-birdsong.  I have never seen this toad, but I know it's there.  I made a house for it by leaning a piece of slate against the low board that borders the garden, and it's repaying me by keeping the area mosquito-free (though I have the frogs to thank for this too).

The sun has finally gone, leaving a red streak in the western horizon.  It's too dark to read, and getting chilly.  I pick up my book, call Bisou, and head indoors.  In the darkness behind me, plop! another swimmer dives in.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tales Of The Porcupine: Final Chapter

As you may recall, a porcupine has, for the last several months, been doing his or her best to eat the post between our garage doors.  We have tried to dissuade him with hardware cloth, through which he has chewed;  with sprigs of mint, which he has ignored;  and with a humane trap, baited with salted apple slices, which ditto.

Finally, two weeks ago, my spouse rigged up a motion detector which turned on a radio inside the house whenever anything passed in front of it.  Then he retrieved the .410 shotgun with which his Southern grandmother hunted pheasants in the Al-Can Highway in 1944, and propped it just inside the front door.

Days passed, and whenever people came to the house, the gun was secreted out of sight.  Also during that time, dozens of birds flew in front of the motion detector and caused the radio to come on, but only for an instant.  Of the porcupine there was no sign, and we theorized that the motion detecting apparatus had accomplished what hardware cloth and sprigs of mint had failed to do.

Then, last night, shortly after midnight, a BBC interview with a British novelist roused us from sleep.  The radio was on, and it was staying on.  It was the porcupine.

My spouse leaped from the bed, ran downstairs, loaded his grandmother's gun and stepped silently into the moonlit night.  It was the porcupine all right, big as a Cocker Spaniel, gnawing away at our garage post.  Not wishing to cause further damage to the post, he first shooed the creature away, and then, Bam!  The porcupine was no more.


What between the blast of the shotgun and the thought of the porcupine lying dead in the moonlight, it took us a long time to get back to sleep.

This morning, after breakfast, my husband carried the beast into the woods, down the hill and beyond the swamp, where I hope he will provide some other creature's tasty dinner (but who eats a porcupine?) and not be found by our dogs.

I have a B.A. in Biology, so I felt honor-bound to take a look at the corpus before it was taken away.  It's amazing how squeamish I've become over time.  There were quills all over the ground, a little blood, a wound I could hardly bear to look at.

We're having broccoli quiche and a green salad for dinner tonight, and going to bed early.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Good Advice From Old Voltaire

In 1755, an earthquake followed by a tidal wave and a city-wide fire destroyed Lisbon and killed 40,000 people.  (Sound familiar?). In a rage at the random maliciousness of fate--and especially in a rage against the followers of Leibnitz, who believed that a world created by a perfect God must of necessity be ultimately perfect--Voltaire wrote Candide.  The hero of the story, a naive and optimistic soul, undergoes a series of catastrophes before retiring, a sadder but wiser man, to the countryside where, in an Age of Enlightenment commune, he and his friends raise their own food, bake their own bread, and weave their own cloth.  His parting words at the end of the story, and Voltaire's message to the ages:  "We must cultivate our garden."

How curious that today Voltaire's advice works not only metaphorically (work hard, take care of yourself, be good to those around you), but literally:  in a time when a single month's climate-induced catastrophes dwarf the Lisbon disaster, it is a very good thing to cultivate our garden.

By growing at least some of our own food we decrease the number of refrigerated trucks spewing emissions on our highways.  We save trips to the grocery store, spewing ditto.  We increase the number of oxygen-producing green things.  We give our bodies the best possible nutrition and some much-needed exercise.  And by getting our hands dirty we come in contact with soil micro-organisms that stimulate serotonin production in the brain...which may give us just the right dose of optimism to keep us going in these apocalyptic times.


This is what I've been cultivating.  Back row, from left to right, tomatoes, butternut squash and delicata squash.  Middle row, broccoli; lettuce, mustard and zucchini (the zucchini will take over when the salad greens bolt);  Swiss chard.  Front row, kale, peas (not doing well due to recent hot spell), and more broccoli.  The tropical-looking stuff along the right side is rhubarb.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Adventures In Self-Promotion

If I've heard this once I've heard it a hundred times, from art biz gurus great and small:  if artists and writers don't take charge of promoting their own work, they are condemning themselves to a sales record equal to that of VanGogh during his lifetime (namely, zero).  And, the gurus add, with Twitter, Facebook, and all the wonders of the web within easy reach of everyone, those who fail to advertise have only themselves to blame if their paintings, pots, sculptures, symphonies, novels, and lyric poems are left to molder in attics and basements, their disposal one more post-funeral imposition on the hapless heirs.

I am happy to report that I have spent the last three weeks engaged in intensive self promotion, partly out of consideration for my heirs, and partly because it gives me real pleasure to see something I have made go to a good home.  The first week I spent getting ready for Open Studio, polishing and attaching bases to my sculptures, taking photos, inventing titles and prices, designing a display, packing up, setting up, buying (not baking--there's only so much I can do) dozens of cookies for the potential visitors, and making and posting signs to direct said visitors to the venue I was sharing with a friend.

Two of my pieces went to new homes, fewer than in years past, but what can you do with these gas prices.  One ("Small Meditator," see below) was bought by a man for his youngish but extremely frail-looking wife.  He handed it to her with a tearful kiss and said "Now you can have her with you every morning when you meditate," and she leaned on him and closed her eyes.


When Open Studio was over, I removed the roadside signs, packed everything into the car, unpacked and stored it at home, and hurried to do minimal maintenance on the garden, which had exploded over the hot weekend.

I also took a nap.

After that, as directed by the gurus, I made a new "artist page" on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/EulaliaBenejamCobb.artist.writer).  To do this, I had to retrieve the pictures of everything I'd ever made, sort them into categories, and select the ones to post.  This took me, literally, days to accomplish.

But the wondrous promise of this "artist page" was that, if I got 25 people to "like" it, it could then become a URL that would make my work accessible to the entire planet.  This meant that I had to go through my list of Facebook Friends, select the ones whose e-mail address I knew, and send them a bizarre little message asking them to "like" my new page.

In 24 hours, I had most--but not all--the "likes" I needed.  So I posted a status update on Facebook sort of begging people to "like" the page.  The response got me more than the required number of "likes," but did not eliminate the feeling that I was taking advantage of my friends.  True, asking for a click is not like asking for a kidney, but still....

After I get the new Facebook URL set up, I'll need to find someone to spiff up my ancient website, which when it is done will require some more trumpeting on my part.  Meanwhile I must be sure to sign up for "Foliage Open Studio" in October, and Art on the Green in September.  Must not miss deadlines for shows at Southern Vermont Arts Center or the Chaffee Center for the Arts, either.

All this--especially the vision of thousands of artists all over the globe simultaneously revamping their websites, getting friends to like their Facebook pages, and waxing eloquent about their work--was making me feel pretty discouraged with art as a business.  It was time to get back to the long-neglected real thing.  I went down to my basement studio, where the Madonna of the Bats (in honor of the East Coast's endangered bats) awaited.

I pushed the clay around, fixed her smile and her left knee, and gave her a couple of bats for company.  Three hours later, feeling much better, I came upstairs, washed the clay off my hands, and wrote this post.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Drying Mania Begins

It happens every year.  In June the garden goes crazy with sap surging and shoots shooting and bees buzzing and everything blooming and smelling heavenly.  And I want to bring all that glory into the house and hold on to it.  Not very Zen of me, I know. 

I gather armfuls of mints and artemisia and chamomile, basketfuls of roses, buckets of thyme and oregano.  I pick lavender until my back gives out.  The things with stems I tie in bunches and hang from the curtain rods in the dining room and living room--I think my  herbs perfuming the air as we pass by make a far more
interesting "window treatment" than some boring curtain.  The rose petals and the thyme I dry on basketweave trays on the dining room table.  When a storm is threatening, as it did  today, the scent of roses fills the room.  After the herbs dry, I strip the leaves and flowers from the stems, and store them in glass jars that I line up proudly on the dry sink in the kitchen.  And there they sit until next summer. 

But while I pick my herbs, I have all kinds of plans for them--potpourris, sachets, sleep pillows, cordials, liqueurs, colognes.  Unfortunately, I only manage to bring a couple of these into fruition.  In the summer and early fall, I'm too busy gardening and harvesting and preserving vegetables, and by the time that is over, it's Thanksgiving, and next thing I know Christmas is upon us and it's too late to start the potpourris and liqueurs, which need weeks to "ripen," to give as gifts.

As I write, I must have six or seven jars full of last year's mint, chamomile, and lavender.  And yet this morning, before the storms broke, I ran out and gathered lavender (trying to keep out of the bees' way), bergamot and chamomile, and hung them up in bunches from the curtain rod on the front door.


It gives me a thrilling kind of medieval herbalist feeling, to see those bunches hanging inside the house, and I practically salivate thinking of all the things I can do with them.  The bergamot will look sensational in a glass potpourri jar, and I just found a recipe on the internet for chamomile wine (it's more like chamomile-flavored wine, since the recipe starts with a bottle of white wine).  And the roses this year are so fabulous that I'm thinking of sending off for some perfumer's alcohol so I can make my own rose cologne....

Monday, June 6, 2011

The More Things Change...

A doe has hidden her fawn in the front field.   If I drag my chaise longue close to the wren house and sit quietly, I can hear the babies peeping inside while their parents dash from the wren house to the apple tree, from the apple tree to the woods and back again, bearing take-out which the father announces with a song that seems far too loud for his tiny throat.  Our front porch is again besmirched with phoebe poop.  The thrifty phoebes first built their nest there three years ago, and they aren't about to make a new one while this one is still perfectly good.  Yesterday I saw that it is crammed full of chicks.

We are surrounded by nativity scenes, by budding, hatching, birthing, blooming.  How can this fertile, speeded-up landscape be the same that seemed so dead just six weeks ago?  I know intellectually that the pond where a frog is pizzicatoing was so deeply covered in snow that the dogs and I walked over it routinely, but I cannot hear the crunch of my feet, or feel the cold on my face.  The tree branches that alone interrupted the universal whiteness have disappeared under masses of foliage.  I stretch out my typing hand and it comes back redolent of mint, chamomile and thyme.  No matter how I try, I cannot reenter winter.  As Francois Villon said not quite a millenium ago, where are the snows of yesteryear?

It seems to me that we are a species designed for permanence but thrust by mistake into a world of change.  How else do you explain our longing for eternal spring, eternal youth, eternal love?  Yet, at the same time, I know that by summer's end, wearied of the garden, I will long for the killing frost, for the first fire in the wood stove, the first snow.  Maybe what our species was designed for is discontent.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Q&A

(The Gardener speaks):
Peonies, hostas,
Thyme and lavender beloved of bees,
Irises bearded and beardless,
Chamomile, bee balm, and sage,
Blanc Double de Coubert Rugosa,
Lupins pink and blue,
Baptisia, rue,
Scented and zonal geraniums,
Purple columbine, yellow buttercups, astilbe,
And you, little low-growing pink pentagons
Whose name escapes me--
Why are you so sensational?

(The flowers answer):
Because we're seasonal.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

We Are Now At War

...with the porcupine who is trying to demolish our garage.  We have tried peaceful, low-tech strategies, to wit:

1. Wrapping the garage post in hardware cloth.  He has chewed holes through this, and inflicted major damage.

2. Purchasing and baiting (with yummy salted apple slices) a humane trap, which he has ignored.

3. Threading sprigs of mint through the hardware cloth.  This disconcerted him for a couple of nights, but then he returned with a vengeance.

Now my ingenious spouse has rigged up a motion detector that will turn on a radio in the house whenever something or someone approaches the garage.  He has oiled and loaded a gun that hasn't been used since he killed a pheasant in 1977.  Tonight we will watch and wait, and tomorrow I will let you know the outcome.

On a more idyllic note, the baby wrens must have hatched, since there are now two birds rushing in and out of the wren house with tidbits.  They (the parents) are so tiny, and they work so hard.  And instead of saving precious energy, they twitter every time they perch on the nearby gutter.  I wish I could set out some comfort food for them:  grits or oatmeal or something.  But wrens like a challenge, and the food they bring home has to be wild-caught, and just the right size.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chicken Soup Story

One day in April, just as the snow was starting to melt, my husband and I drove up a hill to a farm that sells apple-smoked, free-range chicken.  The road to the farm was long and rutted, so as long as we were there we figured we might as well buy six birds.  The farmer gave us a quantity discount, but even so, those chickens were not cheap.

Here's what I did with the first chicken.  After we had dined for over a week on the legs and breasts, I put the carcass into my big stock pot, with carrots, celery, onion and water, and simmered it for 24 hours, adding a bunch of parsley during the last ten minutes.  This is the method advocated by the Nourishing Traditions cookbook, and stock made in this manner is supposed to do you a world of good.

When the stock was cool, I strained it into nine quart jars, which I put in the freezer.  Then came the job that I detest:  boning the carcass to get the last bits of meat.  It's nasty, greasy work, even with rubber gloves on, and it takes forever.  The bones (every last one, I hope) went into the garbage;  the limp veggies and the skin and any weird-looking bits of meat went into the freezer for future dog meals;  and a scant two cups of meat went into freezer bags to be added to soup or tomato sauce or a casserole for dinner some day.  Then I cleaned up, and took a nap.

When we're done with that chicken, I figure we will have gotten some sixteen main dishes for two out of it.  So maybe it wasn't so expensive after all.

But the reason I'm writing about making chicken stock is that the whole time I was doing it I was thinking how difficult it would be for someone in financial straits to squeeze every penny out of a chicken this way.  I imagined a lone woman with a couple of children and a job.  Once she and the kids have eaten most of the bird, it's time to make stock.  But first, she has to have a freezer in which to store the stock, and a book to tell her how to make it.  The carrots and the celery and the parsley might require an extra trip to the grocery store.  And she needs to have the energy and focus, after the stock has simmered for a day, after she has fed the kids and put them to bed, to spend a couple of hours straining the stock and boning the carcass and cleaning up.

Perhaps most importantly, she needs to have grown up in a culture in which chicken carcasses are not thrown out, but made into soup.  It is still possible (though it's getting harder every day) in this country to eat cheaply and reasonably well, but it takes time and effort and knowledge.  It helps if you know that beans and rice together make a complete protein, for instance, and that you can make a quart of milk go farther if you mix it with reconstituted powdered milk.  (We're talking economic survival here, so anything organic that you don't grow yourself is probably out of the question.)

The director of the local food bank (http://communityfoodcupboard.org/) tells me that one of her staff's main challenges is to teach the clients, many of whom grew up on processed convenience foods, strategies for eating cheaply and well.  Food is a touchy issue for all of us.  Our attitudes towards it are formed in earliest childhood, and are deeply ingrained.  So the food bank staff faces an uphill struggle.

Although attitudes towards food are evolving, the trend towards locally-grown non-processed (let alone organic) food is evident mostly among the well-to-do.  However, I read somewhere that significant changes usually begin at the upper strata of society, and eventually filter down to the rest of the population.  So maybe there is hope after all.  Some day there will be a chicken carcass in every stock pot.  I wish it would happen during my lifetime.