Monday, January 30, 2012

Soup Of The Evening

My freezer is full of jars containing the liquid essence of long-gone hens.  There are also many plastic tubs full of the pureed prolific members of the cucurbit family--pumpkin and her sister squashes:  acorn, butternut, and delicata.

It being, for the moment, slightly wintry outside, with enough snow on the ground to make it look less like late October, I made for supper my famous (to me) Curried Cream of Cucurbit soup, so simple that it qualifies as home-grown fast-food.  Here's how to make it:  into the blender dump a quart of hen broth and a couple of cups of squash or pumpkin, two tablespoons of butter and two of flour.  Salt, pepper, and some hot curry powder.  A splash of sherry or brandy.  Then blend, heat, and eat.

The result lives up perfectly (except for the color, of course.  But you can make this soup with green veg, too, omitting the curry powder) to the lines by Lewis Carroll:

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, Beautiful Soup!


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Needlepoint For The Soul

Last week I suffered one of my periodic attacks of "I've got to do something with my hands!"  I've been doing quite a bit of writing lately (not here, I know), and writing often brings on an almost physical urge to do something completely different.  Over-taxed as well as over-stimulated, my left brain begs me to let it go vacant for a while, and switch to the other side.

Drawing is a good right-brain activity, but not what I would call restful--for me at least, it involves too much judgment.  No, when my cranium feels like a dried-out husk but it's still not time for bed, nothing soothes me like needle and thread.  Crochet works sometimes, but it's too monotonous.  And ever since the German nun who tried to teach me to knit in second grade yelled at me for dropping stitches, knitting has been way too fraught for me.

I got yelled at by various other nuns on both sides of the Atlantic for being a sloppy embroiderer, too, but they didn't leave the scars my knitting instructor did.  Crewel is my favorite--it is close to painting on cloth, and the many possible stitches produce a variety of textures.  But, after a stint at the computer, crewel is hard on the eyes.

For ease and mindlesness combined with color and tactile pleasure, nothing beats needlepoint.  You buy a kit that includes a design stamped in color on canvas, a needle, and a bunch of woolen skeins in the appropriate shades.  The work itself is a lot like coloring in a coloring book.  You try to stay within the lines and to make the stitches as even as possible.  The needle is sturdy and blunt--you don't even have to use a thimble.

Then the fun begins. There is the scratchy feel of the starched canvas, the satisfying thwack of the needle going in, followed by the pshhhhht! of the thread being drawn.  Another thwack, another pshhht! and before you know it you have colored in the pale green half of a curvy leaf.  You turn to the wrong side of the canvas, anchor the thread and cut it.  Now it's time to work the dark part of the leaf.  You gloat for a moment over the delicious collection of wools in your work basket, then thread the needle with the evergreen-colored wool, and before you know it you have a lovely, woolly leaf.  Next you get to do a flower.  The hardest part is stopping.

Since needlework is an old-timey pursuit and I feel deliciously old-timey while I'm doing it, I lean towards old-timey designs:  overblown roses set amid generous foliage and spiraling tendrils.  But it bothers me that these are someone else's designs, not my own.  After all, how hard can it be to design one's own needlepoint?  As far as I can tell, all you need to do is keep the design fairly simple and remember that different shades will be juxtaposed instead of shading into each other.  Sort of like this:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When My Mind Is Elsewhere, Where Am I?

It's been happening a lot lately.  I'll have fifteen minutes before I have to leave the house to go somewhere and I think, "I'll just write a couple of sentences to start my next blog post."  I'm a great believer in jotting something down as a pump primer and returning to it later.  But inevitably, even though I firmly intend to stop writing and leave punctually for my appointment, I lose track of time, then come to with a start and have to rush out of the house like a bat out of hell.

The same thing happens every morning when I sit on the floor to meditate.  I set the 30-minute timer, close my eyes, and focus on the breath.  Next thing I know, I've planned what I'm going to cook for dinner and had exciting imaginary conversations with a couple of people I haven't seen in years.  I return to the breath, and suddenly I'm writing the day's blog post.  And so on. 

I am prepared for this:  meditation gurus warn against the tendency of "monkey mind" to jump all over the place.  But I don't want to jump all over the place.  I want to focus on the breath and achieve serenity.  I want to write for fifteen minutes, hit Save, and leave the house.  Who is this monkey in my head?

It's the same monkey that, every night, puts me to sleep.  The difference is that, at night, she has my permission.  I get in bed, close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and invoke the monkey.  I ask her to take me out of time and reality until morning, and she usually obliges.  My mind grows dim, wanders a bit, and next thing I know, the dogs are whining for their breakfast.  If you've ever had trouble falling asleep, you know that the monkey cannot be summoned at will.  But neither, at least in my experience, can she be kept away.

I don't, of course, believe that I am inhabited by a monkey any more than I believe that I am possessed by a devil.  But then who is it that, despite my best intentions, makes me forget the time while I'm writing, or plan menus while I'm meditating?  Is the real me the one that sets the intention, or the one that seduces me into wayward avenues of thought?  And just who is in charge here?

Please tell me I'm not the only one with this problem.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Dog Drool

Those dog books you read--if you are the kind of responsible person who reads books about responsible dog ownership before rushing out to get a dog--warn that dealing with dog excreta, dog hair, dog nails, dog ear dirt and dog tears is part and parcel of being a dog owner.  But they don't tell you about dog slobber.

Yet dog slobber, or drool--saliva, if you prefer--is a fact of life if you own a dog.  Very large breeds, especially those with proportionately short muzzles, such as mastiffs, are the most prolific slobbers, decorating the walls of their dwellings with soaring arcs of droplets worthy of Jackson Pollock. 

But even Wolfie, who has a long German Shepherd muzzle and only weighs around ninety pounds, slobbers. As he sits and stays while I set out his food, long strings of drool issue from under his upper lip.  That same lip, when he takes a drink of water, collects an extra cup or so of fluid that he then sprinkles over the rug or up the sides of the pine chest that stands near his bowl.  True, it's not 100% slobber, but it's not pure water, either. 

Whenever I open my laptop, he is there in a flash, wondering what I'm up to, ears back and tail wagging, sniffing and salivating all over the keyboard.  It's a miracle the laptop works at all.  Like a villain in a melodrama, he drools over the objects of his affections.  Let me put on a black outfit preparatory to going out, and he immediately decorates it with a smear of saliva that shines iridescent in the lamplight.  When Bisou went through her (first and only) heat, he drooled so copiously that for three solid weeks she went around with her hair all in gelled spikes, like a rock star.

Lexi, whose muzzle is much narrower, and who has been ever dainty in her indoor habits, also causes drool dramas.  Our windowsills are less than two feet from the floor.  Whenever a deer, a squirrel, a chickadee or even a mosquito passes in front of them, Lexi--followed by the rest of the pack--tries to crash through to get at the intruder, leaving the imprint of her moist nose and tongue on the glass.  The sliding door leading to the back yard is doubly afflicted.  The dogs slobber on one side of it when they want to go out, and on the other when they want to come back in.

Once upon a time, there was one window in the house that was free of slobber.  It was the window behind the living room sofa, whose sill is just above the back cushions.  Since the big dogs were never allowed on the furniture, at least we had one window through which guests could see the view.   But that came to an end when we got Bisou, whose breed has been fiddled with by humans for five hundred years to produce the perfect lap dog.

If your lap happens to be occupied by a book or a plate of food, your lap dog has to sit on the sofa next to you.  From there, it is but a short hop to the top of the back cushions and thence to the window sill, where Bisou, nose and tongue glued to the glass, alternately celebrates and mourns the arrivals and departures of our guests. 

A few times a year, the slobber gets cleaned off the windows.  For two or three days I rejoice in the light streaming through.  Then the clouds return.

I moan about the slobber clouds as I moan about the clouds of hair--white, gray, black, tan, red--that waft over our floors and under our furniture.  I can sense the non-pet owners among you thinking, "Why does she have dogs if she doesn't like their mess?  Why doesn't she keep them outdoors, or just get rid of the lot?"

That, of course, is the sensible solution.  But I don't want a solution.  I just want to complain.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Of A Midnight Ambulance Ride, A Skid Off The Road In A Blizzard, And A Trek To Safety With Three Dogs

There's a limit to the amount of narrative suspense I'm willing to inflict on my readers, so I'll say right now that we're fine:  spouse, self, and the three dogs.  The hens are fine too, but then, they never go anywhere.

I was reading Trollope in bed three nights ago when my husband announced that he was having severe chest pains.  911 is an easy number to remember, even in the midst of panic.  I made the call and rushed to get dressed and put away the dogs so they wouldn't jump all over the EMTs as they attempted to save my husband's life.

I needn't have rushed.  It was the night of the full moon, and the nearest rescue team was busy saving other people.  Forty-five minutes later, I followed the ambulance down our driveway for the forty-five minute drive to the hospital.  I don't much like driving at night, and doing 75 mph was almost as scary as imagining what might be going on inside that ambulance.

In the emergency room, nurses attached my suffering husband to various monitors, administered nitroglycerin, which didn't work, then morphine, which didn't work either.  When asked to rate his pain on a scale of 0 to 10 he said "nine,"  then took a breath and said "ten!"  Not just every breath, but every heart beat increased the pain.

We were left alone for a long time while x-rays and tests were being analyzed.  Then an angel in the form of a (seemingly) teenage Indian doctor shimmered in and said that the test results and my husband's response to various proddings indicated that he was not having a "cardiac event."  But he would have to be admitted, and monitored, and seen by a cardiologist the next day.

At four in the morning I arrived home and went to bed.  Bisou jumped in and curled herself into a little bean shape against my stomach, and we both went to sleep.

When I awoke, the news continued to be good (less pain, more negative test results).   Before I left for the hospital, not knowing how long I'd be gone, I asked my friend who runs the canine B&B to pick up the dogs and take them home with her.

That evening, having been assured by the cardiologist that my husband's circulatory system was in perfect health (the severe pain was due to a virus-caused inflammation of the membranes surrounding the heart), limp with gratitude and relief, we both returned home.

Ah, life without dogs!  Do some people actually live that way?  What do they do with themselves all day?

The next morning, after a luxurious lie-in--nobody to let out, let back in, or feed--I set out in the station wagon to pick up the dogs.  The weather report predicted mixed precipitation, but in Vermont you can be basking in the sun at home while your neighbor down the road is being blinded by a blizzard.

A few minutes into the drive, it started sleeting.  I passed several snow plows scattering sand, then noticed that there were no other cars on the road.  The wind was howling, but I was in an optimistic mood.  Hadn't I just driven at 75 mph behind an ambulance, in the dark?  "I'm tired of being a scaredy-cat flatlander!" I muttered.  Vivaldi was playing on the radio, and I hummed along, feeling invulnerable.

At the intersection of the highway and the dirt road leading to the B&B, the road curves steeply upward.  I saw that its surface was covered in several inches of wind-blown--and therefore dry and slippery--snow, and wondered what the return trip would be like.

As I loaded the dogs into the car, I felt like a figure in a snow globe, one being shaken by a crazed six-year-old.  We got underway, Bisou in her crate on the back seat, Wolfie and Lexi in the cargo space.  More nice music was playing on the radio.  We made it up a hill, then down.  We were crawling along a flat stretch when the car hit a deep rut and was flung into a spin.  I saw the white trunk of a well-grown birch tree advancing towards us, and then we were in a ditch.

I squeezed out over the passenger seat, freed a screaming Bisou from her upturned crate, then went to let the big dogs out the back, but there was a tree in the way, and I couldn't open the hatch.  Wolfie promptly dove onto the back seat and out of the car.  "Stay with me," I told him while I put Lexi's collar on and tugged, then tried to help her raise her front legs high enough to get over the back of the seat.  But she laid her ears back and said apologetically, "Sorry, I can't."

What to do?  I couldn't leave her in the car:  she was scared, and the car was tilted at a perilous angle.  I couldn't call for help because there is no cell-phone reception in that particular spot.  And besides, nobody could have gotten to us in those conditions. 

It's difficult to think clearly when howling gusts are flinging snow into your face and you can't see and your heart is pumping hard because of the birch tree.  But it seemed that there was nothing for it but to walk back to the B&B, if I could only get Lexi out of the car.  I went around to the back again and the obstructing tree (sapling, really) agreed to be pushed away just enough that I could open the hatch.

I lifted Lexi out and we headed back down the road, the three dogs on their leashes, and me trying to keep from spraining an ankle on the snow-covered ruts.  Lexi was glued to my side, doing the best heeling of her entire 13 1/2 years.  Wolfie was out front, looking out for malefactors.  Bisou was having a great time, but every once in a while a gust would blow her back behind me and she'd tangle her leash around my legs.

I had no idea how far we'd have to walk.  On one of the hills I felt a pull behind me--Lexi's arthritic hips were giving way.  Would I need to carry her the rest of the way?  But she managed to keep walking, and, after letting Wolfie (for once!) pull me up my friend's driveway, we reached our destination.

Then it was comforting words, strong hot coffee and phone calls.  My husband dealt with the insurance and the towing.  Because of the road conditions, it took two different trucks before the car was finally rescued.  And so were we--after the town truck plowed the road--by my fully-recovered spouse.

In the early winter twilight, doubly limp with relief and gratitude, we arrived home, where there was barely a sprinkling of snow on the ground.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Forgiving Our Mothers

Went to a meeting of women of a certain age yesterday to talk about mothers and daughters.  The room was crowded, and  I couldn't help wondering what an equivalent meeting for men would have been like.  Would guys have showed up in such numbers on a Sunday afternoon?  Would they have told intimate stories about their fathers?

In this meeting, the stories came pouring out. There was the woman who, the night before her mother died, dreamed that she was carrying her mother down a path towards a bridge whose other side was obscured by clouds;  the woman whose mother could not attend her daughter's college graduation because she was giving birth to her fourteenth child;  the woman (several women) who felt abandoned by her mother.  Finally, there was the woman who, try as she might, could not bring herself to forgive her mother. The room had lots of advice for her, basically having to do with letting go of her feelings so she could get on with her life.  Then, as the meeting was about to end, one woman spoke up "You can't just think about forgiveness."  She clasped her hands to her bosom, "Forgiveness has to come from the heart."


Talk about a perpetual guilt machine.  I can imagine the unforgiving woman beating herself up for the rest of her life, saying "But I don't feel forgiveness towards my mother."  Paradoxically, my often guilt-inducing Catholic education could have come to the rescue, had I had a chance to speak.  "Feelings don't have anything to do with it," I would have told her.  "All you need is the intention to forgive.  Make an act of the will.  Act as though you have forgiven, and things will take care of themselves."

There's nothing we can do about our feelings.  Resentment, hatred, gluttony, envy, lust keep endlessly erupting out of that hidden volcano we all carry inside.  They appear uninvited, sometimes a trickle,  sometimes a torrent.  And sometimes they vanish for good.

The only thing we can control is our actions. The practice of acting as though one has forgiven reminds me of the loving-kindness practice in Buddhism.  You keep repeating "may all beings be safe, may all beings be happy..." and eventually you may end up feeling kindly towards your worst enemy.  But it's o.k. if the feeling doesn't come, as long as the intention is there.

This approach to morality has helped in my own dealings with my mother.  I can recall things my mother did or said that still arouse less-than-loving feelings in me.  But in my mind and with my will I have forgiven her, and thus am spared the burden of guilt.

The process of forgiving my mother has been assisted by my being the mother of adult children--daughters at that.  How can anybody who has bumbled and improvised her way through motherhood, armed with nothing but luck and good intentions, see herself through the eyes of her grown daughters and not cast a newly indulgent eye on her own mother?  In other words, let her who is without guilt cast the first stone...

Despite my refusal to cast stones, I'm sorry to say, the resentment volcano still erupts.  "Why  did she...?   How on earth could she...?  Didn't she see that I...?"  On and on, ad infinite nauseam.  Isn't it time I got over this, I wonder?  Will it ever go away? 

I am beginning to suspect that this particular volcano will never go completely dormant.  But after yesterday's meeting, hearing all those stories, at least I know that mine is not the only volcano that's still sputtering away.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Violette's Violin

In these days when violins small enough to fit into a diaper bag are thrust into the hands of toddlers, my granddaughter Violette started taking lessons at the relatively late age of eight.  She practices on a 3/4 size instrument that has tapes on the fingerboard showing her where the notes are. The kindest thing you can say about this instrument is that it is serviceable.  She treats it as casually as an old teddy bear, setting the case down on the floor, dragging the violin around the house, letting it accumulate a fine powdering of rosin.  I am both alarmed and charmed by her blithe treatment of her fiddle.  From earliest infancy I was taught to treat any string instrument with reverence and awe.

No violin got more of both than my father's violin, which he bought from a gipsy who showed up unannounced at our apartment in Barcelona.  As a toddler, I was allowed as a special treat to pluck a single string ("pizzicato" was one of my first words) while my father held the instrument securely in his hands.  On our first Atlantic crossing on the way to Ecuador, in a fat Pan Am prop plane, the violin traveled with us in the cabin, like a person.

It is a good, though not an extraordinary, violin, rather small for a full-size, and with a clear, clean sound, just right for chamber music.  It is accompanied by superb bow, made by the fabled and now defunct Hill's of London.  Eventually my father had a new violin made for him, one with the big sound required by larger spaces.  This, and his viola were sold by my mother years after he died.

But the gipsy's violin, the one with the worn varnish where for years his hand had hit the higher notes, came to live with me.  For over forty years I carted it from house to house during our many moves.  On a couple of occasions I had it repaired (violins disintegrate if they're not played regularly) and the bow re-haired, with a view to resuming my practice.  But that never happened, and the violin would go back into its case for another long sleep.

Then this Christmas, when Violette was visiting, I remembered the violin in the closet and thought, why not?   I could at least let her try it on for size.  Our family, I am happy to say, is blessed with long arms, and when Violette, who is nine now, tucked the fiddle under her chin, her hand effortlessly reached the right spot on the finger board.  I replaced a broken D string, tuned it up for her, and suggested that she play one of her pieces.

This violin, needless to say, had no tapes prompting her finger positions, and the distances on the fingerboard were proportionately larger than on her small instrument.  Yet she adjusted her fingering quickly, by ear, like a real musician.  And the whole family gathered around her sighed with pleasure at the clarity of the sound she made.

Four generations.... This violin paid for tuition at my German nuns' school, the Sunday paella, the airfare  to Ecuador and, four years later, to the U.S.  Now it's in the hands of Violette, who I hope was sufficiently impressed by my cautions to treat it with at least some reverence and awe.  My father would be pleased to hear her play.  He would, I'm certain, say she has "conditions."  And then, like he told me a million times, he would tell her to practice her bowing.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why I Asked For, And Got, A Kindle For Christmas

It was the only item on my Christmas list, and it was underlined three times, and Santa, bless his heart, got the message.  I have my own Kindle now, in its leather-like case with a magnetic clasp that closes with a satisfying flop.

Why a Kindle, when I am not a Kindle type?  I wasn't an electronic typewriter type, either, yet became addicted and immediately started composing as if it had been plugged directly into my brain.  Nor was I a computer type, or a laptop type at first.   For all I know, I may be an Ipad, Iphone, and Ibrain type, too.  I just don't know it yet.

But there are more substantive reasons than the charms of new technology for my desire to own an e-reader:  blizzards and relapses.  In my admittedly cosseted existence, I count as a disaster being stuck in a blizzard, or in a CFS relapse, without a stack of books beside me.  Unfortunately, in the last seven years in Vermont, I have often been stuck without a book to read.

Each of the villages around here has, along with its adorable white-spired Congregational church, an equally adorable but tiny library on the town green.  These are lovely white-painted frame buildings with tall multi-paned windows  through which the clear winter sun shines on the wide pine floor boards, the antique card catalogs, and the sparse book collection, in which the works of Danielle Steel are generously represented.  Not that I wouldn't, if driven to it by the hazards of weather and CFS, actually read one of Danielle's books--if I could only get to a library when it was open.  Like the post offices and town dumps around here, libraries have charmingly erratic schedules, never the same two days in a row, never open when you need them.

The independent bookstore forty-five minutes from my house (practically next door, in Vermont terms), stays open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.  It is the cynosure of the region.  You can get lost in its narrow hallways and book-lined nooks until the aroma of Green Mountain coffee draws you out of the labyrinth and into the land of panini made with local goat cheese.  As well as books, you can buy children's toys here, scrumptious blank diaries and quirky jewelry.  And you can listen to speakers about causes dear to a Vermonter's heart.

Alas, much though I love this place, it does not entirely satisfy my book needs.  The writers I most like to read--Evelyn Waugh, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Trollope--are not in fashion, are represented by a single or at most two volumes that I have unfortunately already read.  I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that 90% of the books on the shelves were published after 1990.  I do not blame the store for this.  As we all know, independent booksellers have to bend with the prevailing winds to survive.

Hence my Kindle.  It's easy on the eyes and on the hand.  The books in e-form are cheaper than their paper counterparts, and available at all hours in case of blizzard or relapse.  Many of the books whose copyrights have expired--the Murdochs, Trollopes, et al.--are free.  And they don't take up space on my groaning bookshelves.

I hope my owning a Kindle doesn't make me a traitor to good writing and reading.  This gizmo gives me access to out-of-print books that I would otherwise not be able to read, just as Gutenberg's invention made it possible for a person to have her very own bible under her own roof, one that she could light a candle and read if the wind woke her up in the middle of the night. 

Last night, with the temperature near zero, the coyotes were feeling frisky.  Awakened by their unearthly chorus I fired up my Kindle, and read myself back to sleep.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Golden Mean

This is another post about CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).   You should know that it is a good sign when I write about this illness, since when I am in relapse I will do anything to take my mind off it.

I've been thinking lately about how strongly contact with people--or the lack of it--affects my symptoms.  On the one hand, when I am not feeling well, nothing tires me more than the human presence.  And not all human presences affect me in the same way.  I have learned through experience that, regardless of the degree of affection I may feel for them, certain people wear me out, while others don't.

I cannot say that all high-energy people fatigue me, since I find some of them stimulating and revitalizing.  Other intense individuals, however, make me feel as if the very marrow is being sucked out of my bones.  Nor are all quiet people restful and salutary.  I can enjoy quiet/interesting for hours, but the most exhausting encounters are those with quiet/boring, probably because I feel obligated to provide all the fuel for the conversation.

When I am at my worst, the only presences I can tolerate are my spouse--and my dogs.

On the other hand, nothing is more crucial to my mental (and likely also my physical) health than contact with people.  Isolation has a depressing effect even on those in the pink of condition.  How much more so, then, on people whose illness features depression as one of its foremost symptoms.  So I find myself in the curious position of simultaneously desiring human contact, and avoiding it.

The trick is to achieve a balance between social activity and solitude.  Sometimes I perform amazing feats of calibration--say, lunch out, then a nap, and a phone conversation in the evening.  But both lunch and dinner out on the same day usually spells disaster the next morning.

It would be easier if the planet's inhabitants existed solely to attend to my needs.  That not being the case, my friends' schedules and obligations as well as their feelings and preferences complicate my attempts to calibrate my exposure to society.

For the most part, however, I manage pretty well.  For one thing, I am now in the fortunate position not to have to confront co-workers on a daily basis.  For another, I am comfortable with a degree of solitude that many would find intolerable (that's why I live in Vermont).  And I have understanding and flexible friends.

I am just coming out of a period of extraordinary (for me) levels of human contact:  a week in the midst of my descendants followed by an explosion of year-end celebrations.  And yet here I am, sitting by the fire, writing about it, seemingly none the worse for all the fun.  Does it--could it--mean I'm getting better?

I have learned, over the last fifteen years, not to attach to these resurgences.  I have read my Buddhist books, and know that I should enjoy these good periods, while at the same time accepting that, like everything else in life, they are transitory.

This is one of the reasons I write about this otherwise boring, disgusting illness:  because it distills the conflicts and dilemmas that all humans have to face.  The need to balance social life and contemplation, activity and rest.  The need to accept that we are more than the sum of our accomplishments.  The need to realize that nothing--not the good times nor the bad--lasts forever.   And that, while suffering is inescapable, happiness is not out of the question.