Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Nymphs of Vermont

The landscape of ancient Greece teemed with nymphs, the protective spirits that dwelt in particular places.  Glens, pastures, meadows, valleys, mountains and grottoes each had their own nymph species.  There were salt-water nymphs--oceanids--of which the Mediterranean contained a subspecies, the nereids.  Fresh-water nymphs, naiads, were classified according to whether they inhabited a river, a spring, a fountain, a lake or a swamp.  And there were nymphs of trees and plants, nymphs of the sky and nymphs of the underworld.

If Nature filled Greece with nymphs, who's to say She didn't put some in Vermont as well?  When I walk outside with the dogs they certainly appear alert to what are to me invisible presences.  Surely the hill on which our house sits has its own oread, or mountain nymph, and the front field its auloniad, or pasture nymph.  The woods behind the house must be alive with dryads--tree nymphs-- and I hope there is a watchful meliad in the big ash tree, keeping the deadly ash borer at bay.

 I never thought about the swamp at the bottom of the woods as anything but a nuisance--the dogs love to wade in it and get muddy--until I realized that it is home to a naiad, specifically an eleinomad, or wetlands nymph, put there to take care of the frogs and turtles and salamanders.

How to explain the disproportionately large crops I've been getting from my young trees other than that there must be a pretty good epimeliad, or apple nymph, floating around their branches?  I should put out an offering--wine?  milk?  maple syrup?--to thank her, and also some for the syke, or fig-tree nymph, to make sure my tiny potted tree survives the cold.

I wonder what happens to the anthousai, the flower nymphs, in this weather?  They must all be deep  underground by now, although seeing how exuberantly the geraniums and the rosemary burst into bloom when I brought them indoors, there may well be an anthousa spending the winter in the sun porch.

May the nymphs of yam and cranberry dance on your Thanksgiving table, and may you be filled with gratitude.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Iris Murdoch On Relationships

Conventional wisdom has it that taking a loved one for granted leads to loss. Instead, we are taught to constantly "work" at relationships lest they wither before our eyes.  This is why Dame Iris's pronouncement,  "There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship," seems shocking.  But I think she's right.

In an utterly-taken-for-granted relationship, you can stop constantly scrutinizing the other for signs of approval or displeasure, take a deep breath and return to your center.  You can be yourself, and relax into what my mother used to call the "blessed trust" of a committed  partnership.  You can stop arranging dates, making fancy desserts and buying flowers in hopes of keeping the love from expiring. You can even forget the occasional birthday or anniversary without fatal consequences.
 Over a lifetime, that saves a lot of energy.

Iris doesn't say that such relationships bring happiness, let alone fulfillment or ecstasy--the things that we have been taught to expect from love.  Instead, she settles for humble "comfort"--which does not, however, exclude happiness--because that is the more feasible goal.  She  knew that nothing guarantees misery like an impossible goal.

Iris herself was married for forty-three years, until her death from Alzheimer's, to John Bayley*, and produced over 25 novels plus a stack of plays and philosophical works.  She couldn't have managed all that if she had squandered her energies trying to come up with tricks to keep their relationship "alive."

This taking utterly for granted is not a good idea in the early stages, when the partners are building the foundation of their relationship.  And it is not to say that the occasional unexpected trinket or treat, when the effort is extended out of generosity of spirit rather than anxiety or propitiation, can't be put to excellent effect.

But in a mature relationship, once the roof and walls are firmly in place, it is good to move in, take off your shoes, and make yourself at home.

*After Iris's death, Bayley wrote Elegy for Iris, a memoir of the last years of her life.  It was made into Iris, with Judi Dench and Kate Winslett, one of the most affecting movies I've ever seen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

All That Hair

"When you were born," my mother used to tell me, "you had so much hair that as soon as the midwife cleaned you up she put a bow in it.  It was so long," she went on, "that it covered the tops of your ears, which was a good thing, because they had hair growing on them too."

Fortunately the ear hair soon fell off, but the rest of it hung on and provided the refrain of my childhood.   "Just look at it," my four aunts and my grandmothers would sigh, commiserating with my mother, "what on earth can you do with all that hair?"  Even the fishwives and the vegetable vendors in the market would exclaim over it, with the mixture of horror and grudging admiration usually reserved for natural disasters.

As a little kid I wore my hair short, scraped back off my forehead and fastened with a bow.  My mother, who in another century would have made a fine phrenologist, believed that a large forehead was a sign of intelligence, so until I left home for graduate school I astounded the world with my broad and rather bumpy forehead.

In preparation for entering first grade, however,  my mother let my hair grow long enough to be tamed into braids.  Every morning, to tease out the knots that had formed during the night, she would insert the comb next to my scalp and tug firmly downward, then proceed to the next tangle while I protested sleepily.  The actual braiding took considerable effort, due again to the volume she was dealing with--think of braiding hawsers.  The result was a pair of thick, short, stiff braids that would come undone at the slightest provocation.

In the Amazon, with a marmoset on my shoulder, my right braid coming undone as usual.  There is another one just like it behind my left ear. 

I longed to wear my hair the way the older girls wore it, in a single braid draped fashionably over one shoulder.  But no matter how hard I tried, I never could force my hair into one braid.  Nor could I wear it in a pony tail, since they didn't make bands wide enough to hold it.

On special occasions I was allowed to wear my hair loose, which I thought made me look beautiful.  I loved not feeling the weight of the braids with each head movement, and I wanted to wear it that way all the time, but my mother demurred, because of the knot issue.  "Besides," she said, "when you wear it loose you look like a lion."

Managing my hair continued to be a problem through my adolescence, but I was saved by the arrival of the bubble style popularized by Jackie Kennedy.  Unlike my friends, who had to tease and spray their hair to make it stand up, I barely had to touch mine.  Then in the late sixties, when everybody started wearing their hair loose and long, I all but gave myself a crew cut.

Over the following decades my hair gradually simmered down.  I was surprised when I could run a brush through it, as opposed to needing a sturdy wide-toothed comb.  I was shocked when I managed  to fasten my pony tail with a single large barrette.  Now I treasure every strand that still clings to my scalp.

But thinking of all the thinning and braiding and fastening that went on for all those years, I wonder what would have happened if I had put my foot down and worn my long hair loose and wild, sticking out in all directions and making me look, and perhaps act, like a lion?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuns, Absolved

Get into conversation with a lapsed Catholic like me, and before long we're rolling up our psychological sleeves and showing off our scars, the result of wounds inflicted by nuns.  They scared us half to death, those nuns, we complain.  They killed our joie de vivre and injected guilt into our young souls.  We spent our childhood trembling in the shadow of their long habits.

I have, over the years, done my share of scar-showing and nun-blaming.  But now that I haven't been around veils and wimples for more than half a century, I'm having second thoughts about the nuns who taught me.

By the time I was eighteen, I had experienced nuns of three different orders and nationalities, in three different countries.  My first nuns, in Barcelona, came from Munich, having fled nazism in 1939 only to land in fascist Spain.  The school I attended in Ecuador was run by Mercedarian nuns from Spain.  And my high school teachers were Benedictine nuns in Birmingham, Alabama.

The German nuns were the scariest.  This may have been because their Spanish was sketchy.  When they got angry they lapsed into German, and nothing's more frightening  than being yelled at in a foreign language for failing to follow an order that you didn't understand in the first place. 

The Mercedarians were the most elegant.  They wore habits of creamy wool with contrasting black veils and belts.  But their thick-heeled, lace-up shoes looked mannish, I thought, and spoiled the effect.

By contrast with the German nuns, the American Benedictines were a piece of cake. They made jokes in class and actually praised us for just doing our homework, something the Germans wouldn't have dreamed of doing.  But by then fearing nuns was part of my nature, and I continued to tremble until I left Catholic education and went to college.

Why did so many of us spend our childhood afraid nuns?  Was it because we couldn't see their hair, ears or legs, or because they were so boldly in charge and so different from our lipsticked,  domesticated mothers?

True, they were somber and strict and they taught us some silly things, such as (this from my German nuns) the proper way to sleep at night:  flat on our backs, our arms straight along our sides "and not the hands going all over the body."  They were obsessed with punctuality, posture, and penmanship .

But they also dinned into us the necessity of being good.  They taught us the nightly examination of conscience, which meant going over the day with a fine-toothed comb, looking for sins venial and mortal and also for good actions.  In the case of the latter we learned to ask ourselves, "Did I give my allowance to charity only to impress my teacher, or because I truly wanted to help?"

At the beginning and end of every class, we would stand by our desks, lower our eyes, and say a prayer.  Although they didn't call it "centering," that is what it was, and it was a useful habit to develop early.

The nuns taught us discipline, and kept things in order.  My classmates and I may, during those years of strict obedience, have had some of our exuberance stymied, but we never had to worry about being bullied or, in our co-ed high school, being threatened by boys.  And I never, in twelve years of nun schooling, saw anybody's knuckles being rapped.

In the pre-feminist 1950s there weren't many role models for girls.  But we Catholic-school pupils had them, every day, and we learned that women in authority could be smart and fair but also petty and fallible--human, in short.

Whether they knew it or not, nuns were feminists by definition and history. The founder of the order of my German nuns was a 16th-century Yorkshire woman named Mary Ward.  She wanted to affirm the role of women in the Church and in society, and to tend to their spiritual, intellectual and psychological development.  Inspired by the Jesuits--the most intellectual of the male orders--she structured her order along parallel lines and left her nuns uncloistered, something highly unusual for the time.

I believe that our fear of nuns was partly dictated by an unconscious sexism, a rebellion against women who were so unapologetically in charge and who, at least within the confines of school and convent, did not have to obey, make themselves attractive to, or in any way propitiate men.

So I apologize to you, Mater Leonarda, Madre Mercedes, Sister Dominica, wherever you are, for having made you the topic of too many party stories.  Thank you for keeping me safe, for forcing me to perform in the face of fear, and for teaching me the habit of self reflection.  You were tough, and you were women, and we found--and still find--that combination hard to swallow.  But that wasn't your fault.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Angel of the Killing Frost Comes By

Last night he descended on our hill, and with a touch of his icy blade felled the peppers and the eggplants and the nicotiana, and turned the unripe figs to frozen lumps.  I must remember to salvage the figs for the hens, who will appreciate them now that bugs and green grass are history.

 A couple of days earlier I had brought the two geraniums and the Meyer lemon into the house for the winter, and the five big lemons on the tiny tree are now slowly turning yellow next to a sunny window.

I also brought in the big pot of rosemary.  I forgot that I had given it a good watering the day before, and when I went to lift it it was so heavy that I almost dropped it.  But I have never yet dropped anything I've tried to lift, and once I've got something in my arms I am loath to call for help.  So I staggered and groaned and finally got the pot up the two steps into the sun porch where it will live until the spring.  And I thanked my lucky stars for my relatively short back, which has never "gone out" on me yet.  But in the future I must remember not to water the big pots before moving them.

It's time to wrap the Leyland cypresses in their burlap coats, to defend them not from the cold but from the deer.  Last winter, on the pretext that the wild apple crop had failed, the deer tiptoed right up to the house and munched on the evergreens.  This year has been great for apples--you can see piles of them littering the roadsides--but I'm not taking any chances.

I must also remember to put those plastic spiral trunk shields on the fruit trees before the rabbits start chewing on their bark.  And I have to figure out a way to protect the climbing roses against those same rabbits, though I can't see how I can wrap burlap around their thorny branches.  Maybe chicken wire?

Then it will all be done, except for setting up the bird feeder now that the bears have safely gone into their dens.  And then I too can finally--except for picking the chard and the kale, which continue to thumb their noses at the Frozen One--go into hibernation too.