Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer's Subsiding

Did a couple of garden jobs today that I should have done long ago:  pruning the lilacs and planting beans.  I told myself even as I pushed the seeds into the dirt with my chopstick that there is no way these plants will make it to maturity before frost, but I had just pulled up the pea vines and couldn't bear to leave a garden bed unused.  The beans are the last planting of the 2011 vegetable garden, which is headed for the home stretch.  The squash and pumpkin vines are seemingly taking over the earth, and the white cabbage butterflies are having their way with the broccoli.  I ate the first tomato a couple of days ago:  a single marble-sized gold nugget.   Before I know it it will be apple-picking time.

I realize we're still in July, but summer is definitely on the decline.  Driving down the country roads you can see that the trees and bushes are getting that blowsy, overripe, middle-aged look.  An almost invisible wash of  brownish yellow--the plant world's equivalent of the first gray hairs--has come over the foliage.  The verges are lined with goldenrod and black-eyed susans, both colored the mustard-yellow that succeeds the clear lemon shades of spring.  The poison parsnip flowers, which at their peak look like a yellow version of queen anne's lace, have turned an unequivocal brown.

It doesn't bother me that summer's on the wane.  I dread the prospect of hot, humid weather, and I rejoice that with each passing day we are closer to the coolness of September.  We had a couple of days in the high 90s a while ago, and it felt so miserable that, after resisting for six years, and with the specter of global warming growing more real all the time,  I finally threw in the towel and asked my husband to get an air conditioner for our second-floor bedroom.

Without ever having been turned on, that air conditioner has already made a huge improvement in our quality of life:  as soon as the unit was installed, the weather turned dry and cool, and looks to stay that way for the next ten days.  And after that, it will practically be September.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mozarts Of Maternity

Back from a long string of days wandering in the deserts of CFS, I read an article in last week's New Yorker about the French intellectual and feminist, Elisabeth Badinter.

Talking about the dilemmas faced by mothers, Badinter says,
"If you're a mother, you are either too present or too absent;  you can't win.  You have to be a Mozart of maternity to reach the right absence-presence balance."
Ah yes, Mozart--that feather-light touch, that depth of sentiment, that endless inventiveness, that total  mastery--that's what a mother should be.

My own mother's style was more along Wagnerian lines:  persistently present and passionate, rich in color and drama.  In reaction, my own mothering was minimalist, sort of in the style of Philip Glass.  For example, my mother chose my wedding dress for me.  As a consequence, by the time they were three, my daughters were deciding what to wear to pre-school.  Often the outfits were less than becoming, but I fervently believed that as long as they were protected from the weather, it was my duty to stay out of their way.  I also believed that a major justification for a woman to have a career was to protect her children from becoming the sole focus of her energies.

Of course what you're getting here is my version.  I'm sure that my daughters found me way too present in some ways and too absent in others.  And I know that my mother's oppressive hovering, in her view, was only the expression of her ideas about love and duty. 

In my family, mothering styles seem to skip a generation:  my mother's mother allowed her to leave the village for high school and then university.  After age fourteen, my mother never lived at home again. 

Surely my family is not the only one where mothers lurch from pole to pole of the maternal dialectic.  If so, somewhere out there must exist that perfect synthesis:  a Mozart of maternity, with that lightness of touch, that depth of feeling.... 

If you know one, please let us hear about her.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Phoebe Mishap

Every summer for the last three years, the phoebes have raised two batches of babies in their nest inside the eaves of our front porch.  They make a mess on the porch floor, but that is a small price to pay for their close familiarity and conscientious bug eating.  Between the phoebes and the frogs, I have yet to see a single mosquito around the house this summer.

But yesterday afternoon I saw that the nest had fallen to the floor.  It was actually two nests, one built on top of the other, and there was a dead nestling trapped beneath them.  Right up against the wall of the house was its sibling, alive and cheeping weakly.  It was smaller than a soup spoon, all beak and new feathers.  I turned and walked away from the disaster scene.

It was the best I could do.  Even if I'd known what kind of bugs it liked, and in what quantities, there's no way I could have caught them.  It probably needed water, too, but how much, and how to give it without drowning it?  My only hope was that the parents were aware of their surviving child, and would take care of it.  I left the nest debris and the dead baby right where they had fallen, so as not to alarm the parents.  It occurred to me that the flies gathering on the little cadaver might provide some easy meals for the parents to catch.

A couple of hours later I checked again and the nestling was still alive, and cheeping louder.  I wondered how it would survive the night, away from its sibling's warmth.  I wondered whether the critters that hunt in the dark would find it, and was glad that at least we had nothing to fear from the porcupine. 

Today, he or she is still there, glued to the same spot, cheeping.  There is some poop right near him, which I'm interpreting as a sign that he's being fed.  The last time I checked he was quiet, and I had to get really close to see the tiny vibrations of his feathers.  I guess even baby birds have to take breaks from eating.

The parent phoebes are flying back and forth from the bird feeder which they use as a perch (they don't eat seeds) to the plum tree in front of the porch.  I'm sure they know their child is there.  Now I'm worried about the temperatures in the mid-90s that are forecast for this afternoon--but the porch faces north, so he will at least be sheltered from the sun.  I've put a small dish of water nearby.  It's the best I can do.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Gay Hens

Before I plunge into a narrative of what I saw today, I should set the scene.  My current flock consists of, in descending order of age:

A.  Three Buff Orpingtons, fat and yellow and indistinguishable from each other.  Poor layers all, two of them have been broody since the beginning of summer.

B.  Two Rhode Island Reds and one Barred Rock, all in their second year, and laying well.

C.  A gaggle of eight pre-pubertal pullets of various breeds who keep to themselves and have a wonderful time.

Another fact worth remembering, and one that I have documented in these pages, is that one of my hens has, in the past, occasionally been heard to crow.  This has always happened early in the morning, before I serve them breakfast, so I've never been able to figure out who was doing the crowing.  But somebody was definitely sounding rooster-like.

This evening I was outside reading Elisabeth Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating when I looked up and saw two hens...mating.  I have had roosters before, so I know whereof I speak.  What I saw was not the half-hearted, playful reciprocal mounting of cows or bitches in heat.  What I saw looked earnest and businesslike.

The usual scenario runs like this:  the rooster struts a bit and does a little sideways dance with one wing pointed downwards, then looks around and mounts the nearest hen, grabbing her neck feathers with his beak, "treading" her back with his feet and doing his best to stay balanced.  Then there is a shuddering and a fluffing of feathers and he jumps off and the hen fluffs her feathers and they both go about their separate business.

What I saw today did not include any strutting or dancing (but then, I was deep into my book, so I may have missed it), but one of the Orpingtons got on top of one of the Rhode Islands, and the neck grabbing, the treading and the shuddering and the fluffing of feathers happened exactly as it used to when there was a patriarch in the flock.

I have not looked up "gay hens" on Google, because I'm afraid of the sites it might lead me to, so I've no idea how unusual this behavior might be.  I'm just a clueless country dweller reporting the extraordinary stuff that goes on right under my nose.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Fragile Balance

Yesterday two friends and a baby Belgian Sheepdog came to visit.  We sat outside drinking wine and periodically fishing the puppy out of the pond into which she kept falling.  She'd forget it was there because she was fixated on getting Bisou to chase her.

Bisou was not her usual dashing self--she's on antibiotics for Lyme--and after giving the puppy a few good runs she had had enough.  This made the puppy go stand under a chair and make mad barking sallies at Bisou, with no effect other than making Bisou growl in an annoyed way I'd never heard before.  When our ears started ringing, the puppy's owner, who used to be Wolfie's herding teacher, suggested that I bring Wolfie out.

He emerged from the house, and instantly peace descended:  no more barking from the puppy, no more growling from Bisou.  We could hear each other talk. 

"Do you see what Wolfie's doing?" the puppy's owner said.  Whenever the little Belgian went near Bisou, Wolfie would silently get between them.  He did this over and over, so discreetly I'd never have noticed it.  He didn't look angry or annoyed-- just focused on ensuring that there was peace in the herd.  Good boy, Wolfie.

Me, I loved every minute of the puppy hullabaloo, and the talk about dogs while evening fell.  Today, on the other hand, will be a day of perfect silence.  I could, and probably should, go to the farmers market.  I definitely should go to the nursery to buy the eggplant and pepper transplants that will replace the peas in one of the garden beds.  Everything I know about growing vegetables in this latitude tells me I should do this right away.

But if I really listen, something else tells me that a day of perfect silence is what I must have.  I think the something else is the voice of my mitochondria, who are trying their best to keep me going while under siege from CFS.  Their voice is so thin and feeble that I ignored it for years.  Often I still ignore it--because I really want to go somewhere or see someone or do a bit of weeding.  But the next day as I lie in the misery of a relapse, prey to a restless, paralyzing discomfort that I can only compare to a combination of flu and severe jet lag, the whine of the mitochondria comes faintly through:  "we told you so, we told you so."

So my days are spent trying to keep a precarious balance between too much and too little.  One dropperful too much--say, going to the supermarket and seeing friends on the same day--brings on a relapse.  Too little mental stimulation and human interaction, and I plunge into boredom, sadness, depression.  The need to maintain such a delicate balance sounds farfetched even to me, but I have to act as if I believed it, because it's the only way I can keep myself at my optimum level.

The trick of course is to find pleasure in the quiet times.  I often think of our hilltop house as a kind of unisex Trappist monastery, with certain allowances such as not having to get up in the middle of the night to pray.  Some days--not always--the silence feels just right, and then I can hear the voice of my mitochondria like a distant bell:  "we're doing fine, we're doing fine."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Recipes I've Abandoned

I got married in August of 1967, so I must have cooked my first-ever meal that September, my skin still mahogany brown from my honeymoon tan.  Those early meals took a lot out of me.  My full load of graduate courses was a snap compared to the challenge of putting varied, colorful, nutritious and economical dishes before my brand-new husband for lunch and dinner every single day.

These meals, both lunch and dinner, included dessert (we had tiger-like metabolisms).  Once I tried to make a cake to celebrate the end of finals.  The recipe said to cook the icing to the "hard ball stage,"  which I interpreted to mean that all the icing ingredients had to be cooked until they became a hard ball....

Here are some of my early adventures in cooking, now mercifully discarded:

1.  Tuna casserole.  This was probably the first dish I mastered, made with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and enhanced with a sprinkling of crumbled potato chips on top.  I still make it, but with bechamel instead of canned soup, organic whole-wheat noodles, lots of veggies and, needless to say, no potato chips.  It takes longer to make and doesn't taste as fabulous as the original, but then, I don't get as hungry as I once did.

2.  California dip--the ur food of graduate-school parties.  You mix half a pint of sour cream with an envelope of onion soup mix, grab a bag of potato chips (left over from the tuna topping) and go put on your long hostess gown.

3.  Jello.  I used to give it to my kids as a kind of healthy dessert.  Being an enlightened parent, I used a  recipe that called for twice the amount of jello powder and resulted in a stiff, psychedelic, bone-building snack that a toddler could hold in her hand, thus saving the aggravation of spoon and bowl.

4.  Peanut butter balls.  You mixed peanut butter, honey (because of the enlightenment factor), and dry powdered milk until you got a stiff mixture that could be formed into balls.  You rolled these in powdered sugar and fed them to your offspring.

5.  Chicken livers in sour cream.  My husband used to love these over rice, and they were cheap, too.  But we didn't know that they were toxic.

6.  Chicken friccasee, another spouse favorite.  It involved browning chicken pieces in Crisco, then putting them in the pressure cooker along with bacon and cream.  More poison.

7.  Dark steaks.  We discovered that our supermarket, where we could never afford any meat fancier than ground beef, would sell us their slightly darkened steaks at ground-beef prices.  I knew from my European upbringing that dark meat is infinitely preferable to the bright red still-warm-from-the-animal sort.  We got so that we grilled only filet mignon, and relegated cuts like T-bones to humble dishes such as soups and stews.  This spoiled ordinary beef for me forever:  I haven't eaten a steak in thirty years, and can only tolerate ground beef if it is well disguised with onions, mushrooms, and red wine.

8.  Fish sticks.  The only reason I can conceive for eating these is that fresh fish was not readily available in Southern supermarkets in those days.  And a toddler could pick up a fish stick with her hand (one without ketchup on it) and eat it all by herself.

(Fish sticks, jello fingers, endless boxes of Cheerios..a lot of what we ate in our early married days had to do with what a toddler could manage on her own.)

9.  Ice cream.  I served this with a clear conscience, and not just on special occasions.  It is the one item on this list that I really miss.

I'd love to know some that recipes you've abandoned.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


They hayed our fields a few days ago, taking advantage of the dry, crisp weather, and now the bales have been left to cure, sitting like hair rollers on the earth's scalp.

For a couple of days after the mowing, hawks and vultures wheeled overhead, looking for any beasties that had fallen victim to the blades.  I was glad that the doe that gave birth in the front field had long since taken her fawn to the shelter of the woods.

While the grass was being cut and baled, I kept having visions of those paintings by Brueghel of plump peasants cutting wheat and sitting in the shade to devour huge lunches.  And I remembered my childhood summers in the Catalan countryside--I am ancient enough that I can still hear the swishing of the scythes....

But this haying was largely a one-man affair, loud not with carousing voices but the sputtering of engines.  Brueghel's well-fed farm wives bearing the mid-day banquet were replaced by young women in shorts who drove up in cars several times a day and stood chatting with the farmer.  I don't think they brought him any lunch.  But the smell of the cut grass was the same as I remember from childhood, the same that filled Brueghel's nostrils as he painted.

The mower took down several good-sized stands of Saint John's Wort, which had punctually started blooming on Saint John's Eve (which coincides with the solstice).  I was sorry to see the plants with their delicate yellow stars and their leaves pierced with pin-sized holes go, but somebody's cows are going to be extremely relaxed this winter.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Farewell To Lettuce

We're headed for the dog days now, and last week I pulled up the lettuces, which had grown to the size of small trees, as well as the mustard and arugula.  That marked the beginning of our annual period of abstention from lettuce.

From late April through the beginning of July, we eat lettuce every day, lots of it.  Then, it's over until the next spring.  When the tomatoes ripen in August I serve them in splendid isolation, with oil and salt and pepper.  The notion of tomatoes and lettuce together in a salad is an oxymoron, and an abomination unto Nature.  Or just about.

We are not left entirely without raw greens by the lettuce's departure, however.  Until November I can count on the young leaves of Swiss chard (de-stemmed) for sandwiches and things like pasta salads.  But chard is too strong, both in flavor and texture, to use as a main salad ingredient.  After the killing frosts, we abstain from raw greens altogether, and proceed to devour the broccoli, spinach, kale, chard, peas, beans, pumpkins, squash, eggplant, zucchini and tomato sauce that glut our freezer.

When the snow flies we eat raw carrots, which I don't grow but can buy at the farmers' market, and apples.  (The latter, by the way, are the only locally grown item in the supermarket.)  But supermarket lettuce and salad greens are shipped in huge trucks from god-knows-where, and it just doesn't feel right to eat them, in these apocalyptic days.

This kind of seasonal eating reminds me of an advantage of the rhythm method that I once saw listed in a Catholic publication.  It said that by forcing couples to abstain from intercourse for certain periods each month, the rhythm method functions as a powerful aphrodisiac. 

It's true:  absence makes the mouth water.  After a nine-month separation from lettuce, we seasonal eaters pounce on those first buttery, tender leaves like a horde of sex-crazed fiends.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Womanly Art Of Hemming

I just finished shortening, and hemming, seven dresses and two skirts.  Some of these items I'd been wearing for years, while others were recent acquisitions from the fabled church rummage sale in a nearby village.  They all were way too long for me--clearly meant for giantesses--with the hems hovering in the vicinity of my ankles.

The cutting and sewing brought back memories of the elaborate hemming rituals of my childhood, conducted by my mother with the assistance of one of her sisters or the maid.  In those days, the women of my family left serious dressmaking to professional seamstresses, limiting their own participation in the process to choosing the fabric and the pattern, and critiquing the result.  But they all mended assiduously:  they darned socks with the aid of a wooden egg;  they turned my father's shirt collars when they got frayed;  and when sheets started showing wear in the center, they cut them down the middle and sewed the edges together.  And, because I was a growing child, they were forever letting out my seams and letting down my hems.

Letting down a hem involved my putting on the garment in question--the old hem having been previously ripped out and the fabric ironed flat--and standing in the middle of the room while my mother or her assistant orbited around me on her knees with a mouthful of pins, muttering "Stand up straight!  Turn to the right--no, this way.  Not that far.  Go back!  Stand still for a minute, child."

When the hemmer determined that all the points in the circumference of the skirt were equidistant from the floor, she removed the dress and dismissed me.  She then carefully turned under the raw edge of the hem and basted it in place.  She removed the pins.  She threaded a fine needle with thread the exact shade of the dress and, without using a knot to anchor the thread (knots are sloppy!), started sewing the hem, making sure to pick up just a single thread on the right side of the fabric with each stitch.  We owned a treadle sewing machine, but nobody would have dreamed of using that coarse instrument to make a hem.  Just as the Parisian haute couture workshops do to this day, hems at our house were always made by hand.

When the hem was finished, she snipped off the thread with scissors (never with the teeth, because doing that would wear grooves in the enamel) and ironed the finished product by placing a wet cloth between the dress and the iron.  This gave off a toasty smell as delicious as the smell of fresh croissants.  She pulled the dress off the ironing board, placed it on a hanger, and stored it in my armoire (there was not a single closet in our Art Nouveau apartment).

That was long ago and far away.  In the following decades, life and the course of history changed radically, to say the least.  Here is how I--who learned to hem in that apartment in Barcelona, with the balcony doors open to the sun and the sound of streetcars clanging by--hemmed my seven dresses and two skirts.

First, having no assistants, I put on each garment, stood in front of the mirror, and stuck a single pin in the approximate region where I thought the edge of the skirt should be.  Then I set up the ironing board and got out a ruler.  I measured the distance between the old edge and the proposed edge all around the skirt, sticking pins where the ruler more or less indicated.  With a sharp pair of scissors I then cut the fabric from pin to pin, doing my best to keep a straight line.

I removed the pins, folded the raw edge over about a quarter of an inch, and set the fold with a hot iron.  Then I folded the edge again, and ironed that, thus avoiding all that boring basting.  I threaded my sewing machine with a thread the approximate shade of the garment (it's a 45 minute drive from my house to a store that sells any shade of thread other than black or white), and sewed the hem with--and my aunts would be  dismayed to know this--a straight stitch. 

I realize that all the points on the circumference of those hems I just finished are not equidistant from the ground.  And you can definitely see the stitching on the right side of the fabric, in an imperfectly matched thread shade at that.  But I'm content that the job is done and I won't have to go around looking like an elderly child playing dress-up anymore.

Friday, July 8, 2011

My Green Pond

My little garden pond, now in its second summer, is very green.  It is green because it does not have any of those gizmos--pump, filter, aerator, fountain--that use electricity.  It does have a tiny fountain and an aerator, but they both run on solar power.  Since this is Vermont and not Morocco, the fountain and the aerator run very sporadically.  This makes the pond green in the second sense, i.e., full of algae.

I am pleased with my green pond, and so are the frogs--some as big as squirrels and some as small as my thumb--and the water lilies that are slowly covering its surface, the water bugs and the dragon flies.  For a while, I thought there was going to be a problem getting fish to like it.  The first year, against the advice of my pond guru, I bought two shubunkin (beautiful little spotted goldfish that look like koi).  The minute I released them into the pond they disappeared into its murky depths.  I didn't see them again until I found their dead bodies during the spring cleanup.

This summer, thinking that by now the ecology of the pond should be well established, I bought two more shubunkin.  I rushed home from the store, floated their bag on the pond to equalize the water temperature, and released them.  They instantly vanished into the murk, and a week later one of them floated to the surface, dead.  I fed it to the chickens, and started to think that my pond just wasn't good enough for fish.

I concluded that the problem was the depth to surface ratio.  We had made one end of the pond three feet deep, so that it wouldn't freeze completely solid and critters could hibernate on the bottom.  But the surface area is relatively small--about four by ten feet.  I theorized that the pond was too deep for its surface, and despite the efforts of the little fountain, not enough oxygen was getting into the water.  Pretty soon, I thought, even the frogs would start dying.  So I bought a solar-powered bubbler.

With the fountain and the bubbler going and the water lilies blooming and the frogs disporting themselves, the pond was looking quite nice I thought...but it badly needed some fish--something to provide a flash of orange in all that green.  This time I would be conservative, however, and buy plain feeder fish.  On the way to the store, I had an attack of guilt.  "Aren't we condemning these poor animals to death?"  I said to my husband.  "But these are feeder fish," he said.  "In a way, we're giving them a chance to live."  We bought four, and brought them home.
For the third time I floated the plastic bag to equalize the water temperature;  for the third time, I released the fish into the pond;  for the third time, they disappeared.  I resigned myself to having just a plain old frog pond, to enjoy the splash of the fountain (if the sun was out) and the lilies and the water bugs.  I let go of my desire for fish completely.

And then one day when I was sitting watching the frogs I thought I saw a flash of orange in the water.  I blinked, and it was gone.  I looked again, and there it was, under a lily pad--a fish, and not just a fish, but the disappeared shubunkin that I had assumed was dead.  And next to it--oh joy--was a plain orange shape, one of the feeder fish that had also somehow survived.

Since that day two weeks ago, there have been a few more sightings.  Once I saw three fish at the same time.  Clearly there is fish life in the murk, but the fish are so small and the murk is so thick that you can only see them if they come close to the surface.  This of course makes the sight of a fish a far more exciting event than if they were visible all the time.

It's a funny thing about water.  When I'm on the patio there's a lot to look at:  the flower beds, the apple trees, the vegetable garden, the woods, the chickens.  But most of the time, I'm just looking at the pond.

(Please note:  I am working on improving this site, but am managing to make things worse in the process.  Let us hope that that is only temporary.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Little Respect, por favor

For the last couple of decades, multiculturalism has been a revered concept in this country.  Little children in kindergarten are taught that difference is to be not only respected, but admired.  Authors from places no one heard from before write about those places and rise to bestseller status.  And authors from right around the corner, not to be outdone, buy airplane tickets and do years of research so they too can write authoritatively about places and people heretofore ignored.

It is mostly a good thing.  But unfortunately this regard for other cultures often does not extend to their most significant artifact:  their language.

I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, published in 2009 by HarperCollins.  The first part of the book takes place in that most colorful of foreign lands, Mexico, in the colorful 1920's and 30's.  And it involves the era's most colorful trinity, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky.

The author has done a huge amount of research, and has surely traveled in Mexico.  There are endless virtuosic details about the temperament of tides, the smells of food, the sounds of monkeys  that she had to witness in person in order to transcribe them.

To intensify those bright hues and make them seem even more "real," she does what many other writers do:  she lards the text with Spanish words.  Open the first third of the book at random, and your eye immediately jumps to the italicized words and phrases sprinkled over the page:  pez volador (flying fish), el tiempo cura y nos mata (time heals and kills us), sergente...wait--what?  No such word in Spanish.  She must mean sargento (sergeant).  Just a typo that nobody caught.  But no, sergente appears in page after page--it's not a typo.

Then there are the accent marks.  Sometimes they are put where they're needed.  Often, they are neglected.  And sometimes they are applied where they don't belong, for sheer effect.

Worse than the accent problem are major grammatical mistakes such as--to mention just one--lo fugar (which makes no sense) for lo fugaz (which means, that which is fleeting).  Strange how that last  consonant makes such a difference.  The main character is given several opportunities to reflect on the fleetingness of things in general, and every time the mistake is repeated.

If the writer could not trouble herself to straighten out her Spanish, surely HarperCollins could have spared a few hundred dollars to hire a graduate student to proof for language errors?  Literate Spanish speakers are as close as the nearest college. We're not dealing with Serbo-Croatian here, but with a language that some say will soon be spoken by more Americans than English.

I have often laughed at the way restaurant menus scatter accent marks randomly over their lists of entrees* for flavor, the way chefs sprinkle thyme over the wild-caught salmon.  But The Lacuna is not a menu, and HarperCollins is a premier publishing house.

Obviously, neither the writer, nor the editors and publishers cared enough to make sure that the Spanish was correct, and that is a depressing thought.  Americans are enamored of multiculturalism, but multilingualism doesn't seem quite as romantic, and it is a lot of work.

I would have much preferred the book to use English throughout, reserving Spanish for proper names and where absolutely necessary.  It's the use of Spanish as a decorative artifact that offends me, and that surely has Sor Juana Ines* de la Cruz, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and other Mexicans of genius writhing in their graves.

(* Both words need accents, but my software doesn't allow it.  But then, I'm not HarperCollins.)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pema Chodron To The Rescue

A friend recently told me that Pema Chodron, the renowned Buddhist nun, writer and meditation teacher, has CFS.  As soon as I heard this I ran to the computer.  "This," I told myself, "is too good to be true.  I've been waiting all these years for someone with a real understanding of the illness to shed some light on the spiritual aspects of  life with CFS, and it turns out that this deeply wise woman is struggling with it herself.  If anybody can show me how to deal with CFS, Pema can."

Google did not disappoint.  It gave me a number of sources--interviews and biographical articles--that confirmed that Pema Chodron does indeed have CFS.  Furthermore, she was diagnosed the same year as I, 1994, and like me her symptoms had begun to appear gradually several years earlier (the more typical pattern for the illness is the sudden onset of symptoms).

From Pema herself, however, regarding CFS there were only some quotes from a letter that she wrote to a fellow sufferer.  This is what she says:
 The key to working with what is so deeply unwanted, is to let go of the ideas...about how we shouldn't be sick and what will happen to us if we remain sick. Somehow we have to respect the illness, welcome it, enter into it...we surrender and say, okay, what have you to teach me...about letting go of control, about slowing down...about tasting the full experience of a moment...the light, the sound, the quality of our mood, of our pain, the sight of dust or birds or nothing special...respecting all that. It's a kind of death, this illness, the best kind of death if we'll let it be. It's the death of old stuck patterns and opinions and habits and it makes way for something new to be born in us.
I must confess that I was disappointed.  Her words struck me as generic Buddhist advice on how to deal with life and its inevitable contretemps.

But then, as if on cue, I went into another relapse, a quite severe one that kept me essentially bed-ridden for three days.  In my thick mental fog, I tried to remember Pema's words, but all I could recall  was, "it's a kind of death, this illness...."

Gradually, however, something else came back to me--the part about "tasting the full experience of the moment."  In my case, the full experience of the moment had to do with a long list of things that I dearly wanted to do (pick peas, walk the dogs, redesign this blog, start a new clay piece, have lunch with a friend) but couldn't, and heavy feelings of the futility of undertaking any project, since I never know when I will be grounded by a relapse.

In the past, my strategy has been to try my best not to think about all the things that I need/want to be doing, and especially not to contemplate the feelings of futility and hopelesness about ever accomplishing anything of even the smallest significance.  This time, instead, I let myself feel it all, particularly the despairing part.  "I am feeling that it's no use starting another clay piece," I said to myself, "since I've been having such frequent relapses that it will probably take me forever to finish it."  And, when the next feeling arrived:  "Now I'm laughing bitterly at myself for even thinking of redesigning my blog, since I can't even manage to post regularly on it."  And then:  "Now I'm having that familiar dread of committing to anything, since I to have to beg off so often."

Well, it was a long three days, and I can't say that they were easy to live through.  But with Pema's words swirling through my brain, this time the bad feelings, instead of appearing as accurate perceptions of reality,  seemed discrete and detached from reality--as if they had quotation marks around them--and didn't overwhelm me so completely.

The relapse eventually faded, as I knew it would.  Sooner or later it will return, as it always does.  Better not attach to feeling better.  Better learn to respect the illness, as Pema advises.  Better let it become "the best kind of death," if there is such a thing.

All this has an oddly Catholic ring to me:  the value of resignation, the idea that pain is an aid to salvation.  Maybe those first twenty years of my life, spent in an atsmophere of beeswax and incense, are going to come in handy now, after all.  How the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Benedictines who taught me from first grade through high school would chortle if they knew that it took a Buddhist nun to get me thinking this way again.