Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Of Mites And Mange

This is the story of how Bisou, Wolfie and I got mange.

It began in the golden month of September, when the skies were blue for days on end and the leaves were turning and the goldenrod and the ragweed were wafting pollen into the atmosphere in unprecedented amounts.  I noticed that Bisou was scratching quite a bit, and shedding red-gold hairs in unprecedented amounts.  Wolfie was scratching too, and shedding copiously--but then Wolfie's always shedding.

At about this time my doctor put me on Gabapentin for a back problem, and after a couple of days I noticed some red itchy spots on my skin.  "Hives!"  I said to myself.  "I must be allergic to Gabapentin."  And I stopped taking it.

Bisou's scratching was starting to drive us all crazy, so I took her to Vet #1.  "I've never seen so many itchy dogs as I have this fall," he said.  "Bisou is suffering from environmental allergies.  Here, give her some of this prednisone."

Although the prednisone made the itch go away, I worried about its effects of Bisou's innards.  But the minute I stopped the prednisone, the itch came back.  My dog savvy friends recommended over-the-counter benadryl, so I tried that.  It worked well, except that it caused Bisou to retain urine, a common side effect.  So I stopped the benadryl and the itch resumed.  Fortunately Wolfie, who by now was also itching a lot, was able to tolerate the benadryl.

Meanwhile, despite  stopping the Gabapentin, my red spots continued to multiply, but I was so focused on the dogs' problem that I didn't pay too much attention to my own relentless itching.  I was especially worried about Bisou, who was looking thin and raggedy, her once lovely coat reduced to tatters.
Then, one night, I saw that the edges of her left ear were completely hairless and, worst of all, the skin seemed to be flaking off.  At eight the next morning, Bisou and I were at the office of Vet #2.  "It's been an itchy season, all right," he said, "but I'll take a skin scraping just to make sure."  He came back from the lab with a triumphant grin.  "Good news!" he said, waving the slide in the air.  "Bisou's got mange!"

"It really is good news," he said, as I recoiled in horror.  "Mange is a lot easier to treat than allergies."  He recommended a complicated course of Ivermectin for both Bisou and Wolfie. ("If she has mange, he has mange," he said.)  When I asked how this disaster could have befallen my dogs, he explained that all it took was for Bisou to rub against a plant that a fox with mange had previously touched.  There is a big red fox that travels frequently through our neighborhood.  Could he, I wondered, be the culprit?

After giving the dogs their first dose of medication, I looked up sarcoptic mange online.  This is what I found.  Mange is caused by a mite, sarcoptes scabiei.  There are several varieties of sarcoptes mites, each with a preference for a different primary host, on which it reproduces.  Sarcoptes scabiei var. canis causes mange in dogs. We humans have our own mite,  sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, which is contracted through human-to-human contact.
I scrolled through the websites and scratched my head.  Could it be that what I had was not hives, but mange?   The dog-mange mites, I learned, can crawl onto humans and bite.  However, they will not reproduce on human skin.  Thus, the sites stated, in humans the infestation is self-limiting--that is, the mites bite but eventually die.

Soon, thanks to the Ivermectin, the dogs stopped itching.  I spent my life vacuuming frantically and washing dog towels and bedding in hot water to prevent re-infestation.   And scratching.  It was odd that, as the dogs were getting better, I was getting so much worse.

"You should go to the doctor," my spouse--who, miraculously, was not itching--advised.  "There really is no need," I replied between scratches.  "In humans the condition is self-limiting.  I just have to wait for my mites to die a natural death."

Days passed.  I was covered in bites and scratching all night.  "If I go to the doctor, he'll just give me steroids," I told my husband as I raked my fingernails over the backs of  my knees.  "Remember, the condition is self-limiting in humans!"

Finally, after a month of itching, I acknowledged that, for some reason, my mange was not self-limiting.  I went to the health center, displayed my bite-speckled abdomen, and walked out five seconds later with two prescriptions for permethrin cream, one for myself and, just to make sure, one for my symptom-free husband.

The instructions were to rub the greasy cream into every inch of our bodies, from the earlobes to the toes, at bedtime, then twelve hours later take a shower and wash bedsheets, mattress cover, bed skirt and every stitch of clothing we had worn over the preceding two days in hot water.  And vacuum everything.

It was exhausting, but it worked.  My mites died and I stopped itching almost immediately.  Vet #2, who is versed in Chinese medicine, gave me a bottle of Four Marvels powder to help Bisou's coat, and it has grown back marvelously, a deeper, richer red than ever.  But neither the vet nor the doctor was able to explain how I managed to get dog mange, and why the mites prospered on my skin.

A couple of mornings ago Bisou burst into high-pitched barks.  I looked out and there was the neighborhood fox, ambling through our yard on his elegant narrow legs.  He was wearing his full winter fur, thick and red and healthy-looking.  I have always loved foxes.  But as I watched him disappear into the bushes, I found myself scratching my neck.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bisou Gets A Job

No dog-book author would ever classify the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, that ultimate lap-warmer, as a working breed.  But Bisou, who has lived her entire life for pleasure alone--the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of ball-chasing, the pleasure of my company--is now a working dog.

Last Sunday she auditioned for the position of Therapy Dog in the facility (to be known in these pages as "Alder") that houses Wake Robin's assisted-living and skilled-nursing residents.

She was by no means a shoo-in.  As we battled a freezing gale on our way up the hill to Alder, I rehearsed various dire scenarios.  The most worrisome was that she would jump up on people, get tangled up with their walkers, and gouge their shins with her nails.  Have you ever trained a small, friendly dog not to jump up?  I've taught three German Shepherds not to jump up, and it was a relative snap, the main reason being that nobody reinforces a big dog for jumping up.   But when Bisou jumps up on guests at our door they invariably say "Oh, you little sweetheart!" and reward her by ruffling her fur and making kissy noises.

I also worried that, when confronted with persons who appeared ill or disoriented, she might turn away in despair, as a former therapy dog of mine used to do.  She might cower at wheelchairs, run away from walkers and canes, recoil from strange sights and sounds.  She might even, god forbid, poop on the carpet.

But I had underestimated my dog.  When she spotted the first wheelchair, she ambled up to the tiny occupant, sat down, fluffed out her ears and gazed up with her big, liquid eyes.  She waited for the gnarled, trembling hands to reach her head and stayed still for as long as the caresses lasted.

Our next stop was a jolly centenarian who addressed me in perfect Italian and Spanish while she invited Bisou to put her front paws up on the recliner.  I held my breath, envisioning Bisou leaping up and landing on the woman's lap--but my brilliant dog just stood there on her hind legs, making soulful eye contact, enjoying the petting.

And so it went, room after room, with the figures in recliners or on wheelchairs stretching their arms to her, and she trotting up to them, wagging her tail, doing her job.

But for all Bisou's enjoyment, it was work.  When she sensed that we had turned in the direction of the exit, she began to pull on the leash.  She was done.

Back in our cottage, Bisou gave short shrift to Wolfie's concerned greeting ("Where have you been, and what's that smell on you?") and ran to the water bowl, took a good long drink, then jumped into my reading chair, practically patting the seat to say, "come here, you!"  I complied, pulled a blanket over us, and we both fell asleep.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Touch of PTSD

If you live long enough, stuff happens to you.  For me, most recently, it's been the breast cancer diagnosis and surgery of my daughter A.  The great good news is that her lymph nodes are clear.  I had never thought very much about lymph nodes before, but now I think about A.'s all the time, and send them messages of gratitude and encouragement.

These have, needless to say, been trying weeks.  Never had Francis Bacon's saying, "he that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune" struck so close to home.  Happily, my particular hostage is doing very well. I, on the other hand, surprised myself after the good news about the lymph nodes by going into a sort of decline.

Before the surgery, I spent days of panic in which I only assumed the worst.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't talk myself into imagining a less-than-dire scenario.  All attempts at rationality failed, reducing me to a trembling, gnarly tangle of dread.  The only explanation I can think of is that I was acting out of a deep well of primitive superstition, believing that if I allowed myself to picture a happy outcome, I would instantly jinx its chances of happening.

My strategy apparently worked, and when we got the good news I felt that Atlas himself had removed the weight of the planet which had crashed down on me the day of A.'s initial diagnosis.  I also expected that I would immediately begin to feel much better.  Instead, on subsequent days my dark emotional state persisted, as if my body--and the feeling did, in fact, seem largely physical--had grown so accustomed to being in alarm mode that now it couldn't shift out of it.  I felt raw, exhausted, yet unable to rest.  I finally concluded that I was experiencing a minor case of PTSD, and that I would just have to wait it out.

I'm happy to say that the dread is subsiding.  The other day I was driving through Vermont's annual foliage extravaganza, with a Bach piano partita playing on the radio.  The assault of so much beauty on eyes and ears simultaneously almost forced me to stop by the side of the road.  For a moment I didn't think about lymph nodes, Francis Bacon, or the need to perch serenely on the knife-edge of uncertainty.  There was only the visual buzz of the sumac, the honey locust and the maples, and the measured, majestic gracefulness of Bach.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Mother Says...(continued)

They wanted me to sew! my mother says, but all I wanted to do was read novels.  I hid them under my mattress, and I read them at night.

Didn't your parents see the light in your room?

No, because I didn't turn it on.  I used to kneel by the window, with the book propped on the sill, and read by the street light.  I read many novels that way, and that is why I went to law school.

Because of the novels?

Because of the novels.  I read about lawyers defending poor people against injustice, and I decided I wanted to be like them.  So I went to the University of Valencia to learn to be a lawyer.  Valencia was only a four-hour drive away, but in those days--before the Civil War--it was like going to America.

I still cannot believe that my mother let me go.  I was seventeen, and girls from my village did not leave home except to be married.  But as I've told you, my mother was different.  She was not afraid of what people would say, and even though like most girls of her generation she had no more than a grammar-school education, she was smart.

My mother's mother, my mother says, referring to her grandmother, died young, and left four children behind.  Her husband worried that a new wife would make the children unhappy, so he never married again.  Instead, my mother, who was the oldest girl--about twelve when her mother died--took care of the family.  At one point, when she was about fourteen, she did go away to school, but she cried because she was homesick, and her brothers and sisters cried because they missed her, so finally her father hitched up the wagon and went to fetch her home.

When she was eighteen, a spirited, pretty girl, she met my father, who was from a different village and  had just finished veterinary school in Zaragoza.  This seemed very exotic to her, plus he was handsome, so she married him.  When they came back from the honeymoon to their new house, they found her little brother and sisters already installed there.

 My father was a wonderful veterinarian, very progressive, and the peasants trusted him and loved him.  But he was terrible with money.  He couldn't bear to ask people for what they owed him.  In addition to his practice, my parents owned quite a bit of land which was farmed by sharecroppers, so we should have been well off.  But everybody, the peasants whose mules he cured and the sharecroppers who farmed his land, found it easy to get around Senyor Boque.  They were very good at finding excuses--a child was sick, the harvest had been poor--and he always said "Fine, fine.  Don't worry about it."

I'll explain later how this soft-heartedness of my father's may have saved us all in the worst days of the Civil War, my mother continues, but in the meantime there he was, with a wife and four children and a couple of maids to take care of, and perennially short of cash.  And that is when my mother--remember, she had very little education--decided to take things into her own hands.

She became his administrator, secretary and accountant, keeping track of visits paid and medications administered, payments received and monies owed.  When people didn't pay, she told him not to treat their animals, but, my mother says, softening her voice, he used to sneak out and take care of them anyway. 

She was fair but tough on the sharecroppers, too.  On the day when the wheat was put into sacks and weighed, she was there, making sure everything was fair and square...while my father took off  on a on a pretense to look at the fields, but really so he could avoid any disagreements that might arise.

And so, because of her work and determination, we began to have more money.  But she paid the price.  Everybody in the village said that Senyor Boque was a saint.  "La Senyora Boque, on the other hand...."  Still, she did what she had to do.

(To be continued)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Mother Says... (continued)

I don't know why my mother was so different from the other people of the village, my mother says, but she was, and so was my father.  This gave me a terrible complex when I was growing up, because I wanted my parents to be like everybody else.

They didn't go to church.  It's not that they were anticlerical, or that they didn't believe in God.  They sent me and my two sisters and my little brother to Mass on Sundays, but they stayed home.  My father didn't like it that at Mass the women and children knelt in the pews at the front of the church and the men stood in the back, by the door.  He thought that they were there just for show.  But I would have given anything to have parents who went to church like everybody else.

And, my mother continues, her voice rising as she recalls yet another mortifying fact, my parents went to the movies!  The mayor, the lawyer, the doctor all stayed home on Sunday evenings, like proper people.  But my father, the vet, without whose work the local farms would have collapsed, he went to the movies.  And he took his wife along!

But what was so bad about going to the movies? my daughter asks.

Only the poor people went to the movies.  They were also the only ones who could dance at the village festivals, as I've told you.  How I used to wish that we were poor....

But the worst thing was--and here she pauses dramatically and lowers her voice--that when my father went to the cafe after lunch, my mother went with him!  In Barcelona women went to movies and to cafes all the time, of course.  But this was a village, and before the Civil War no woman had ever been seen in the cafe, except your grandmother.  

My  mother stops to recall the scandal, and for a moment my daughter and I bask in our ancestress's daring.

The cafe, she explains, was only for men.  Every day after lunch, the men, rich and poor, went to the cafe to smoke and drink coffee and tell stories.   All the women stayed home, sewing.  It was a little bit like Saudi Arabia... You know, she adds, remembering another Saudi-like custom, that in the village it was customary at meals for the wife to stand and serve the family, and wait to eat until everybody had finished.  In our house, of course, my mother sat and ate with us.  This did not embarrass me so much, because other people didn't see it.

Another strange thing, my mother says, is that in winter she used to feed my father breakfast in bed.

She brought him breakfast in bed?

No, she fed it to him.  With her fingers.  My father used to lie flat in bed with the covers up to his chin and she would bring in a tray with a cup of coffee, two pieces of toast, and a piece of chocolate.  She would sit on the bed and give him a sip of coffee, and then she would break a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, and when he had swallowed that, she would give him a bite of chocolate, then some bread, then a sip of coffee...

And after that?

After that he would get up, put on his long underwear, his corduroy pants, his wool jacket and his black beret and hop on his bicycle and go on his rounds, to cure the mules and horses that had gone lame.  And you know what?  All the years they were married--and my mother married him when she was only eighteen, the prettiest girl in the village--she called him by his last name, "Boque," instead of his first, which was "Josep."

(To be continued)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Mother Says...

After so many years, the boundaries start to blur.  Mothers, granddaughters, daughters, grandmothers--the skein of talk and memory passes from one to the other and grows more tangled with each pass, so that in the end you can hardly tell the threads apart.

I am listening to some recordings that my daughter S made of my mother back when my mother was the age I am now and my daughter had just finished college.  She taped these sessions during one of my mother's visits, and in the background you can hear dishes being rinsed, a dishwasher being loaded.

My mother speaks, and periodically someone interrupts with a question or a remark, and often I can't tell whether that voice is my daughter's, or mine.  There's no mistaking my mother's voice, which  sounds young, like she could be thirty instead of seventy.  Prompted by my daughter, she begins to tell about her own mother and to bring to life a world that no longer exists:  the world of a Catalan village in the 1920s and 30s.  My mother's world as it was "before the war," meaning the civil war that sundered life in Spain into two separate eras:  before 1936 and after 1939.

Before the war, my mother says, life in my village was almost medieval.  The farmers plowed with Roman plows and a pair of mules. Middle class girls weren't allowed to do much besides attend daily Mass and, on Sundays, morning Mass and Rosary in the afternoon.  And visit relatives, of course, and the sick.  The married women all wore black.

At the harvest festival every year a band would come and there was a dance.  But I could never dance because I had to sit with my family in a box high up in the stands, and no boy dared make the trip up all those steps, in view of the entire village, to ask me to dance and risk being turned down.

But the poor people, they were out all night on the dance floor, and they could dance with whomever they pleased.  And they could go to the movies--even the women!--and see things like Mary Pickford and Buffalo Bill.  The poor people had all the fun.  How I envied them!

And you couldn't go to the movies?  my daughter (or is it me?) asks.

Of course not!  my mother says.  But my mother was different...

(to be continued)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Last Week Was Really Something

Over a five-day period, thirteen members of our family came together right here in Vermont to celebrate (in more-or-less chronological order):

--The publication of her first novel by my daughter S
--My husband's and my 47th wedding anniversary
--The legal marriage (as opposed to the unofficial one, which took place a decade ago) of my daughter A and her partner K.  The celebrant was Beth Robinson, who spearheaded the civil unions legislation in Vermont.
--My husband's 70th birthday, which he marked by jumping out of a plane at twelve thousand feet

That's a lot of rejoicing--but no joy on this earth is unalloyed, and beneath all the hoopla ran the anxious continuo of A's very recent breast cancer diagnosis, which is what has kept me from writing here lately.

But days pass, plans are made, and hope revives.

In the midst of the festivities, we also interred my mother's ashes, as per her instructions.  We dug a hole under a young beech tree and poured in the cream-colored grit.  I patted it down with my hands, and was glad to see an earthworm wriggling in the moist dirt.  Together, the worm and my mother's remains will enrich this particular bit of Vermont soil.

The birds are mostly silent now;  the sumac is turning red;  and it's time I got back to writing.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Hard times have come to our family, times that will take all our courage, patience and love to get through.  I am not yet ready to write about this, or about anything else.  But in the meantime, I offer you this luminous talk by David Steindl-Rast, on gratitude.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dog Walk in the Gloaming

Wolfie had one of his bad-limp days on Sunday, and I was thinking maybe he shouldn't come on our evening walk.  But when it was time to leave, my husband decided to join us and, hating to leave Wolfie alone, I put leashes on him and Bisou and we set off on one of Wake Robin's many paths.

You could wander practically forever in the woods here.  The paths themselves are a thing of beauty, meticulously cleared, with lots of signs so you don't get lost, and little plank bridges over awkward spots that always make me think of Japan.  You'd think people come to places like Wake Robin to get away from chores.  But here the residents tap maples and boil sap for syrup;  keep honeybees;  do battle against buckthorn and poison parsnip;  and maintain the trails.  It's the Vermont take on aging.

The woods at this time of year are starting to get that slightly toasted look--the acid greens of spring giving way to the avocado shades of late summer--and on the tips of distressed trees and bushes you can see tinges of red.  The birds, finished with their parenting duties, are mostly silent now.  The crickets are still chirping, but their slower rhythm tells me that fall is around the corner.

Bisou and I led the way down the darkened path.  Behind me Wolfie hopped on three legs--I could hear the heavy thud of each step as he came down on his good front left.  He was panting loudly with the effort.  "Do you think he'll get exhausted when we were far from home?"  I asked my husband.  "At least the ground on the paths is easier on his joints than asphalt," he said.

It's hard to know what to do about Wolfie.  He spent a day at a diagnostic center a couple of weeks ago, and had lots of x-rays, which showed abnormal bone growth on his metatarsals.  His joints are clear--it's not arthritis.  The bone growth could be caused by cancer or by a horrible fungus, but the vets agree that either of those would have made him much sicker by now.  We've tried him on different kinds of pain meds, none of which appear to make any difference.

He doesn't seem to be in acute misery.  His coat looks fine and his appetite is good.  He's mostly enthusiastic about going on walks.  But oh, the sight of that big black dog hopping clumsily on three legs!

While Wolfie hopped and I worried, Bisou was busy collecting teeny tiny sticky burrs all over her long, wavy ears, the gold feathers on her legs and belly, and her lovely red tail.  Every day after our walk I have to comb the things out of her coat, and lately they've gotten so bad that I'm almost tempted to stop walking in the woods and stay on the paved paths.  But as soon as the weather turns cool the ticks will hatch again (spring and fall are their favorite seasons), and then the woods will be out of bounds until the serious cold arrives. 

We walked for almost an hour, and by the time we neared the house Wolfie had stopped hopping.  This could either mean that he no longer hurt, or that he was so tired of walking on three legs that he had to put his bad foot down despite the pain.  Of one thing there was no question, though:  he was happy.

So at least for now, while the days are long and we're still able, before the ticks hatch and the snow flies, we'll keep on walking the paths.

Friday, August 8, 2014


You may recall my recent fruitless attempts to teach Bisou to give up her sled-dog ways and walk nicely on leash ( ).  The only weapons in my arsenal were:  1.  treats, which I would administer during those fleeting moments when I could catch her being "good," and 2.  stopping dead in my tracks whenever she pulled (every minute or so) and "ignoring" her. 

Weapon #1 worked from time to time, but was no match for the lure of a robin hopping on the grass, or a whiff of rabbit.  Weapon #2 just made her laugh.

For the first time in my five-year love affair with Bisou, I was starting to feel seriously annoyed by her.  I found myself putting off our training sessions until it was almost dark, and looking for excuses to avoid them altogether.  And yet, because for very good reasons dogs cannot run free at Wake Robin, Bisou urgently needed to learn to walk on leash.

When my German Shepherds reached adolescence,  our obedience teachers unhesitatingly recommended a prong collar.  If you are using a flat collar, a big, powerful dog suddenly taking off after a chipmunk can easily knock you off your feet or pull your arm out of socket.  So I learned to use the collars properly, and none of my dogs ever gave signs of physical or emotional damage (needless to say, the prongs are blunt, not sharp).

After weeks of frustration, as Bisou pulled me up yet another hill and I began to run out of both patience and treats, trying a prong collar on her began to seem like a possible solution.  Given her sweet and gentle looks (Bisou is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), very few people realize what a tough little customer she is, driven by her spaniel genes to run like the wind and hunt the scurrying denizens of woods and fields.  This is a dog who, when she came to us at eight weeks old, met our two German Shepherds without blinking.  And when Lexi and Wolfie would get into one of their sparring matches, standing on their hind legs and flashing their teeth, Bisou would run smack into their midst, play-growling with all her heart.

After much thought, I decided that it was important to put an end to the vicious cycle of her misbehavior and my frustration, and to make it possible for both of us to enjoy our walks together. Confident that I could adjust my use of the prong collar so as not to traumatize her.  I went to the pet store and bought a small one.  At home, before putting it on her, I slipped it around my forearm and gave it a good yank.  I didn't feel much, but then I realized that Bisou would have the collar around her neck, so I pulled my hair out of the way, clipped Wolfie's prong collar around my neck, and yanked hard.  It wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't awful, either.

I knelt on the ground and called Bisou.  "Sweetie," I said, clipping the collar on her, "I'm doing this for the sake of our relationship." 

The minute we stepped outside, Bisou, as was her wont, catapulted to the end of the leash.  The collar did its work.  "Yikes!" she said, "What was that?" and ran back to me.  I took a step and she charged forth.  "Yikes!  It happened again!" she observed.  I took another step, she charged.  "Yikes! etc."

And that was that.  After the third time, she figured out what was happening and made sure that the leash stayed loose as we walked.  I watched her carefully for signs of upset, but she was stepping  jauntily, head up, tail high.  She was enjoying her walk, and so was I.  Since I didn't have to stop every time she pulled on the leash, we covered a lot more ground than on our prior outings.  I can hardly describe my relief at no longer having to constantly monitor her, to give or withhold treats, to control my urge to yell at her. 

I stopped at a spot with a view of Lake Champlain and gave Bisou permission ("Smell it!") to sniff around.  The sun was setting in a clear sky behind the Adirondacks, and my heart felt as placid as the surface of the lake.  Having deciphered the messages on the grass to her satisfaction, Bisou looked up at me.  "What a terrific dog you are, Bisoulette," I said, meaning every word.  And she wagged her tail and trotted happily beside me, all the way home.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Warrior Pose

The average age of the women in my yoga class at Wake Robin is, I'm guessing, somewhere in the eighties.  And because she announced it proudly as she introduced herself to me, I know that at least one of us is in her mid-nineties.

Although there are chairs spaced around the room for those who need them, the class is more demanding than I expected.  We begin with a couple of breaths in mountain pose, and dive right into forward bends, down-face dogs, warrior asanas, cobra, eagle, bridge, boat and, my nemesis, tree and dancer, the balance poses.

Fourteen years of yoga have taught me what Catholics call "custody of the eyes."  That means that I limit my vision roughly to the area of my mat, and with the exception of the standing poses I mostly practice with eyes closed, doing my best to focus on my breath, my inner sensations,  the state of my soul.  Still, I do get an occasional glimpse of what is going on around me.

And this is what I see.  I see arms that won't rise all the way up, legs that barely bend at the knee,  backs that won't arch, hands that cannot touch the floor.  Bending forward, touching my nose to my knee, I ask  wonder, "If I couldn't reach the floor with my hands, or flex my knees, would I even think of coming to yoga?"

But those arms are reaching as high as they can; those knees are striving to bend;  and with each forward bend, hands stretch closer to the floor. The instructor guides us into warrior one.  I raise my arms as high as I can, keeping them close to my ears, and pushing my shoulders down.  My eyelids flutter open and I see someone in front of me whose right arm won't go up at all, but whose left is raised defiantly towards the sky.

This, it dawns on me, is the real warrior pose, the pose of courage and strength, and what we aging yoginis practice on Friday mornings is the real yoga--no head stands, plows, peacocks or crows--just showing up and doing whatever each of us can reasonably do, accepting ourselves and the cards the universe has dealt us. 

By the way, of all the yoga classes I've been in--and they number well over a dozen--this one chants the most harmonious om's of all.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Verging on Vegan

Having just watched Forks Over Knives for the second time, I'm verging on going vegan.  The stars of the film are Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn.  Silver-haired, ultra-fit, and bursting with energy in their eighties, they made me think that perhaps, if I ate a "whole-food, plant-based diet...centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants" I too could be ultra-fit and bursting with energy.

For a long time now I have been mostly vegetarian, using meat only as a "condiment," in deference to my spouse's carnivorous preferences.  And since coming to Wake Robin, which offers a mind-boggling variety of food choices, I have almost completely banished animals from my plate.

I have not, however, abandoned animal products.  It would not be impossible to eat a vegan diet at Wake Robin, but it wouldn't be much fun.  However, since the Forks Over Knives diet "excludes or  minimizes (italics mine)" animal products (as well as highly refined foods, and oils),  I figured that a reasonable compromise would be to eat a daily vegetarian meal in the dining hall, and make the two other meals, which I prepare in the cottage, as vegan as possible.  And while I was at it, I would give up desserts other than fruit.

The problem with a vegan diet, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's time consuming.  It makes sense that, if you take the heavy foods--meat, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, oils, sugar--out of the diet, you have to put a lot of light foods in.  This means a lot of shopping, and a lot of chopping.

The Forks Over Knives site gives a plethora of vegan (as well as mostly gluten- and sugar-free) recipes, all of which sound tasty to me.  But oh, the lists of ingredients!  A seemingly simple  Burrito Bake includes shredded potatoes, nutritional yeast, onion, bell pepper, zucchini, crimini mushrooms, a handful of beans, a lime, basil, garlic powder, oregano, chili powder, pepper flakes, diced tomatoes, black beans, and fresh cilantro.  But that is nothing compared to the Shepherd's Pie, which calls for twenty-seven ingredients.

Being an enthusiastic undertaker of projects, I can see myself heading out to the store with a two-page shopping list.  I can even see myself doing all that chopping--I rather enjoy chopping, actually.  But what gives me pause is what to do with the leftover ingredients. 

Say I wanted to make a simple batch of vegan blueberry muffins, which calls for twelve Medjool dates, non-dairy milk, oats, millet, baking powder, cardamom, applesauce, lemon zest, blueberries and walnuts.  I assume that Medjool dates, whatever they are, come in packages of more than twelve, so that after eating the muffins I would be left with a considerable number of highly caloric dates which, like the non-dairy milk, won't last forever.  I can envision the jar of applesauce moldering in the back of the fridge along with the forgotten remains of the zested lemon.  The oats, blueberries and walnuts wouldn't be a problem to dispose of, but I have my doubts about the cardamom.  As for the leftover millet, maybe I could buy a canary--canaries will sing for millet.

Still, the radiant health and exuberant vitality of Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn made such an impression on me that I'm willing to give this almost-vegan way of life a try.  I'll share my impressions along the way--if suddenly you see me posting daily, you'll know it's working.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Francis, It's Not Funny

"Question:  How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer:  That's not funny!"

Remember the days when we girls were expected to swallow demeaning jokes with a smile, or be accused of lacking a sense of humor?  Remember when being told we were pretty was supposed to make up for being treated as inferior beings?

Now it seems that those days are still with us, at least where Pope Francis is concerned.  In a recent interview, when asked for his opinion on the place of women in the Church, he answers:  "Women are the most beautiful thing God has made.  The Church is a woman.  Church is a feminine word..."

(Why thank you, Francis.  So glad you like our looks.) 

Then he repeats his frequent assertion that "we need a theology of woman."  I wonder who will make up that theology?  Surely not a gaggle of male clerics claiming a special relationship to the Holy Spirit...

When the interviewer asks whether Francis doesn't see "a certain underlying misogyny" in the Church's attitude towards women, the Pope gets nervous and...he makes a joke!  He pretends to justify this misogyny by saying, "The fact is that woman was taken from a rib," then laughs heartily.  And the women of the world are supposed to laugh along with him, or be accused of lacking a sense of humor. 

The journalist, who knows better than to even mention the ordination of women, then asks if he might some day place a woman in an administrative position in the Vatican.  And Francis, still nervous, makes another joke, saying that often priests end up under the authority of their housekeeper.  Ah yes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world;  the hand that washes the priest's underwear rules the parish.

All this is so familiar, and so sad, not to mention enraging.  Where has Francis been for the last forty years?  How can he be so patronizing, and so naive?  Even more troubling, he presents himself as a champion of the poor and of the environment (he's writing an encyclical on the environment right now) while continuing to condemn artificial contraception as sinful.

My hopes for this pope plummeted when, soon after his election, I read the following quote opposing  Cristina Fernandez Kirchner's victorious bid for the presidency of Argentina:  ”women are naturally helpless to exercise political positions....The natural order and the facts show us that man is the being for politics by excellence; the Scriptures show us that the woman is always the support of the thoughtful man and doer, but nothing more than that.”

Nothing more than that--such hope-crushing words for women.  But at least we can take comfort in our beauty.

(You can see the English version of the full interview here.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Household Gods

If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, you remember Ma's little china shepherdess.  Wherever the Ingalls family ended up--in the big woods, on the prairie, by Plum Creek, or in town--after the wagon had been unloaded and the floor swept Ma would unwrap the little china shepherdess and put her on the special shelf that Pa had made, and the Ingalls knew that they were home.

The ancient Romans were really good at finding gods for all kinds of things.  Among the most useful were the lares and penates, minor deities in charge of protecting the household.  In time, their name came to designate the statues representing them, and the term also spread to especially treasured household objects.

Like Ma and the Romans, I had my lares and penates, objects that followed me from house to house for almost fifty years of married life. The problem is, I had too many, and before moving to our present cottage I got rid of most of them. 

Sometimes, sitting in our new digs, looking out at the new view out of our new windows, I try to  imagine where my lares and penates ended up.  Are they hanging on somebody's wall, sitting on somebody's kitchen counter?  Have the gods who protected my household all those years transferred those duties to their new owners?  One thing I know for sure--of all the dozens of lares and penates I let go, I can only remember a mortar and pestle, and a set of wooden bowls.

However, I did hold on to a few, a very few, of my household deities.  One is a print of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Portrait of a Saxon Noblewoman, decoupaged on an old wooden board edged with antiqued gold paint. 

She sits on the contemporary equivalent of the household shrine, the mantel above the gas fireplace. She has to be one of the ugliest faces in Western art, and I wonder why I'm attached to her.  Maybe it's because she looks so alien.  In my family we tend towards the typical Spanish look--think el Greco--with thick droopy eyebrows to shade us from the glare of the Mediterranean sun, and eyes whose outer corners tilt down rather than up.

File:El Greco - Lady with a Flower.jpg 

But I think the real reason I've enshrined the Cranach woman all these years is that she looks both mean and unapologetic.  I occasionally feel as mean as she looks, but I'm also inwardly apologizing all over the place.  The Cranach woman is mean-spirited and unfriendly, and she doesn't give a damn.  She not only embodies what is worst in me, she possesses a complacency that I can only aspire to.

Family lore has it that I was an exceptionally well-behaved, compliant child.  But as a toddler I had an evil doll, named Antonio, who was constantly misbehaving and having to be made to stand in the corner.  I think the Cranach woman on my mantel is Antonio's successor.  Like the ancient Romans, I know how to pick my gods. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dying To Shop

For most of the last decade I've been in shopping withdrawal.  Along with the woods, the cow-dotted meadows, and the pastoral quiet of our former place in rural Vermont came an almost total absence of stores.

And in my heart I believed that this was a good thing.  It kept us from buying things that had been manufactured under dubious conditions in the far reaches of the planet and that we didn't need in the first place. It forced us to focus on our souls instead of on our stuff.

The availability of everything I could ever want on the internet kept this withdrawal from being absolute, of course.  But as far as actually seeing, touching, and smelling material goods for sale, I was as isolated as a hermit in her desert cave.  Occasionally this lack of stores got annoying, such as the time I had to drive forty-five minutes--albeit through a gorgeous snow-shrouded landscape--to buy a spool of brown thread.  And whenever we left home and ventured into civilization, a casual drive past a strip mall would have me slavering with the desire to buy something, anything.

Now I live around the corner from Vermont's ultra-cool shopping mecca.  The little market three minutes from our cottage carries four brands of Spanish olive oil, one of them from my mother's village in Catalonia, and goat cheeses from at least a dozen local farms.  There are furniture stores overflowing with exquisite pieces made by Vermont woodworkers from Vermont wood, and  boutiques selling clothes woven by Vermont weavers from the wool of Vermont sheep.  There are stores that cater to the enlightened pet owner and kitchen stores that make even me want to cook.

So I have been doing a lot of slavering, but mostly in vain.

If, for example, I go into the market for some breakfast yogurt, I have to ignore the olive oils and the cheeses and the racks of locally-baked breads bristling with grains.  For there is only so much even I can eat, and every day of the year Wake Robin provides us with a lovely, nutritious meal, and the oils would go rancid and the cheeses moldy and the bread stale in our pantry if I succumbed to my urges and brought them home.

I also have to give the furniture stores, the boutiques and the kitchen stores a miss.  Having just pressed one of my daughters into taking my husband's grandmother's wedding china, what am I doing even looking at noodle bowls from Japan?  We have given away, sold, or thrown out eighty percent of our belongings in order to fit into this cottage.  I'd better do a thorough examination of conscience before I bring even a salt shaker into our tiny space.

Maybe I could buy some clothes?  Clothes don't take up a lot of room, especially if they are made of silk.  But we all know where cheap silk comes from, and what those brilliant dyes are doing to rivers across the globe.  Besides, I have clothes hanging in my closet that are a couple of decades old and still perfectly wearable.  So buying clothes isn't a good way to assuage my shopping urges.

I suspect there isn't one.  Maybe what I need is to start meditating again, sitting on the floor and breathing, focusing on my soul, etc.  As it happens, my meditation cushion, which dates from sometime in the 90s, is looking scruffy.  There is bound to be a meditation store nearby....

Friday, July 11, 2014

Swimsuit Shopping at T.J. Maxx

My last swimsuit had sat unworn in a drawer for a couple of decades, and when I put it on last week I found that the elastic had lost its snap.  So on Sunday afternoon I went to find a new suit in that Vatican of fashion, T.J. Maxx.

I was wandering from rack to rack in a trance, avoiding the swimsuit section and looking around at my fellow shoppers, when I noticed several young women wearing the hijab.  Their hair, neck, ears and upper torso draped in cloth, all you could see were their big dark eyes and olive complexions.  Near each woman hovered a man, also young, often in charge of one or two small children.

The other young female shoppers had complexions that aimed towards olive but veered in the direction of orange, telling of self-tanning lotions or, worse, tanning booths.  Some wore transparent camisoles over bras, and shorts cut so high that the pocket liners stuck out over their burnt-sienna thighs.  Others were in long nightgown-like dresses with decolletages rivaling those of the
Napoleonic era.  None of them was accompanied by a man.

Reluctantly approaching the swimsuit rack, I imagined their boyfriends, at home watching the World Cup and drinking beer.  Unlike the male companions of the hijab wearers, they wouldn't be caught dead shopping for clothes on a weekend afternoon.

I come from a long line of covered women.  My maiden name, Benejam, harks to a time in medieval Spain when Arabs and Jews intermingled to such an extent that it's impossible to say which lineage my family belongs to.   But one thing is certain:  whether with wigs, veils, or hats, my great-great-great grandmothers all shunned the male gaze.

Even in my childhood, five centuries after the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, threw both Arabs and Jews out of Spain, girls and women could not enter a church unless we had some scrap of lace or cloth with which to cover our heads.  And I remember sitting through many a sermon in which the priest railed against women whose sleeves failed to cover their elbows.

But forget Spain.  Think Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.  Prom-time is approaching in my Catholic high school, and we girls are told in no uncertain terms that strapless gowns, and even gowns with spaghetti straps, are an "occasion of sin," and unacceptable.  Somehow, we still managed to look  pretty in our Jackie-wannabe shiny gowns and puffy hair styles, our chests modestly under wraps. 

Pulling one swimsuit after another off the rack, surrounded by eastern and western notions of what women should wear and be, I gazed at the young mothers in hijabs with their patient husbands, and at the almost-naked American-born girls shopping alone.  I had always thought of the hijab, the burka and the chador as instruments of female subjection.  Yet here were the hijab-wearers, rifling idly through the dress racks, enjoying themselves while their men kept track of the kids.

I concluded that it was a case of the universal shopping imperative at work, so that if a certain culture dictates that women cannot leave the house alone, then men have to give up their afternoons in front of the TV to take them shopping, and mind the babies.  Sometimes things work out in unexpected ways.

After squeezing into and out of a couple dozen swimsuits, I found one with nice wide straps, paid for it, and drove home.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Time To Cook--or Not

For everything, as we know, there is a season:  a time to plant, a time to reap;  a time to laugh, a time to weep.  A time to cook...and a time to refrain from cooking.

My time to cook began in the Summer of Love of 1967.  Now, as of our move to Wake Robin a month ago, the time to refrain from cooking has arrived.  And not a moment too soon.

I got married just before feminism made its second pass through the American consciousness, when it was not considered particularly attractive for young ladies to be in graduate school, which I was.  Cooking, on the other hand, we were told was a feminine adornment and essential to the health of a marriage, so I strove to broaden my repertory, which prior to the wedding had been limited to boiling eggs.

It wasn't easy to produce a salad, meat, two veg and dessert seven days a week on our grad student income, and things got more complicated when our daughters began to eat solid foods.  Now, in addition to finances, I had three people's tastes to consider, plus I was starting to become aware, along with the rest of America, of the effects of diet on health.

At around this time I fell under the spell of The Mother Earth News, and became persuaded that the only way to keep my family from an early grave was to put on the table food that I had personally grown:  broccoli from my garden, apples from my trees, eggs from my hens, milk from my goats, and bread baked with my own two hands (though the flour came from the store).

This had a lot of charm, but it was a ton of work.  Once they'd eaten their first home-grown omelette and drunk their first miraculous glasses of goat's milk, home-grown food became the norm and my family gradually ceased to exclaim about the wonderfulness of my efforts.  And, children being what they are, the girls turned up their snub little noses at my hard-won broccoli, and pined for McDonald's.

Nevertheless, I persevered.  I still got pleasure from the garden and the goats, but cooking became a chore.  I've known people, all of them male, who say they come home from a day's work and look forward to making a creative dinner--they say it relaxes them.  I was not born to be one of these people.  I was born to marry one.
But I hadn't.  My husband declared himself willing to help, but on his terms:  TV dinners, soups by Campbell's, and green beans from the garden of the Jolly Green Giant.  Convinced that on such a diet we'd all be dead within the year, I shooed him out of the kitchen, gritted my teeth, and cooked on.

Years passed.  We moved from country to city to country again.  The city interludes were less arduous, because at least I wasn't producing the food, but I still had to shop for it.   I knew, as I opened my eyes every morning, that unless I caved and we ordered pizza, before I went to my rest that night I was going to have to do something about dinner. 

And for almost fifty years, I did.

Now that's behind me.  Our monthly fees include lunch or dinner, in the informal cafe or the  formalish (this being Vermont) dining room.  The food is, almost without exception, lovely, and of astounding variety.  I eat more vegetables here than I ever did before. Wake Robin is an important presence in the local farm-to-table movement, so the food is pretty much guilt-free.

Is there nothing I miss of my own cooking?  Certainly:  garlic sauteed in olive oil;  salads consisting entirely of arugula;  bread with, again, olive oil.  But our cottage kitchen is the most modern I've ever had, and its cupboards contain my old cast iron pans and well-worn wooden spoons.  There's a bottle of olive oil in the pantry, and a paper bag with the remains of last summer's garlic crop.  There's no reason I can't whip up a little Mediterranean dish anytime I really feel the urge.  I've even given some hazy consideration to getting deeply into bread making again.  And maybe I will--in the winter perhaps...

But for now, every day I rejoice in the knowledge that the season to refrain from cooking has arrived.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Poor Wolfie

Nobody can figure out what's wrong with him. 

It started slowly, four years ago, when I noticed that Wolfie had lost some stamina.  He still ran flat out, stretching his long legs as far as they would go, covering amazing amounts of ground in a few seconds.  But he didn't do it for quite as long as before.

The vet diagnosed anaplasmosis, a tick-borne disease, and treated him with antibiotics, which are normally quite effective.  In Wolfie's case, however, they weren't, so we treated him again.  Nothing much changed, but he was fine in all other respects--shiny black coat, good appetite, a friend to all.

Time passed and--so gradually that I often wondered if I was imagining it--Wolfie's energy continued to  decrease.  He was, after all, five years old--not a puppy anymore.  Still, he should have been in his prime, so I had him checked again.  All tests came back clear but, just in case, the vet prescribed a third course of antibiotics.

Then about a year ago, one day when he had stopped to feast on some deer poop in the field, I called him and as he ran towards me I noticed a slight limp on his right foreleg.  The next day, it was gone.  I had forgotten all about it when, a week later, the limp came back, and this time it was more pronounced.

In the following weeks I paid close attention to that foreleg, trying to figure out what triggered the limp.  Often, he'd be fine at the start of a walk but limping at the end, but other days he would start off limping and improve by the time we got back home.  Cold weather, warm weather, shifts in barometric pressure--none of it seemed linked to the limp, which came and went according to its own mysterious rhythms.

One thing was certain:  it was getting worse.  On the day when I saw Wolfie holding up his big paw and hobbling on three legs, I rushed him to the vet.  She noticed considerable muscle loss on his right side, and I made an appointment to have him sedated and x-rayed.  While he was under, the vet also drew blood for more tests.

The good news was that his skeleton was in perfect order for a seven-year-old dog, and his blood tests showed no indication of disease.  The bad news:  we still had no explanation for the limp.  The vet consulted various specialists, who were as baffled as she and could only recommend cat-scans and sonograms as the next step.  She put him on a drug for nerve pain, and when he showed no improvement, on an anti-inflammatory.  Nothing changed, except that the limp got worse.

Now, on good days he puts weight on all four legs, though with a noticeable limp.  And by the end of the walk he's lagging behind--a new experience for me (all my dogs, without exception, have been forgers).  On bad days he hops pathetically on three legs, coming down heavily on his good side--thump, thump, thump--so that it hurts to watch him and I take him home after a few minutes and make him lie down and, just to make myself feel better, give him a massage.

Our walks have not only grown shorter, but I've also relaxed all my obedience-school notions about  not allowing the dog to sniff, etc.  Now, as we amble out of the cottage, I indicate the general direction for the day--into the woods and towards the open field, or towards the beehives, or on the paved road--and then give Wolfie free rein, so to speak, to stop and sniff and mark (without lifting his leg, which he can't do these days) to his heart's content, and then go on until a new smell catches his attention.

He's still big and black and shiny-coated.  If you come to the house he will hop over to you and greet you like a long-lost friend and lash you with his wagging tail.  He still hasn't given up hopes, despite their mutual neutered status, of having children with Bisou.

We've had to find a new vet since our move, and we're going to him for a second opinion next week.  I'm hoping that, when I report back to you, I'll have a different story to tell.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Country Dog/City Dog

For all her posh breeding--Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were favorites of Charles II of England--Bisou is a country dog, accustomed to a daily ramble through the landscape.

In our previous house, the minute I let her out she would disappear into the woods, which in fall were her exact color, or into the tall grass of the field.  When--certain that coyotes and catamounts were salivating after her--I shrieked "Bisou, come!" she would streak back to me, her feathers encrusted with burrs and her back crawling with ticks when the weather was warm, or soaked to the skin and with baseball-sized ice balls clinging to her coat when it wasn't.

What never changed was the speed of her short legs, the way her ear curls streamed behind her head, and the ecstatic smile on her face.

In her childhood I took her to obedience classes, where we were introduced to "walking on a loose leash"--a kinder, gentler version of the strict heeling that my earlier dogs and I had been taught.  While she was not the star of the class, she wasn't a disaster, either--at least not on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., when we gathered in the same building with the same dogs and people and smells.

But whenever I took her to new surroundings, her training went out the window.  The solution was, of course, to take her to a different place every day and practice walking on a loose leash--meaning that the instant she began to pull I would stop, and resume walking only when she released tension on the leash.  This stopping and going was to be done over and over and over, day after day, until it dawned on her that, if she wanted to get anywhere, she had better make sure she wasn't pulling.

You can guess what happened.  The training was so mind-numbingly repetitive and frustrating that I wasn't very disciplined about it, especially since Bisou needed a lot of exercise and she could get it in fifteen minutes running full tilt out in the field or in ten minutes retrieving balls.  The stop-and-go walks may have exercised her patience--they certainly did mine--but they provided neither of us with physical exercise.  So when the classes ended, though I continued perfecting her recalls and her stays, I hardly ever leashed her again.

Although we're not actually in a city--it's nothing but verdant woods and meadows around here--the rules for dogs are city rules, and dogs must be leashed at all times.  I agree with and observe this rule, but oh, I wish I'd persevered when Bisou was a pup.

She only weighs eighteen pounds, but she has the heart of an Iditarod champion, and she would gladly pull me all up and down the hilly Wake Robin paths.  So I'm teaching her to walk on a loose leash all over again.

I had taught my previous dogs to heel the way everybody did back then:  by the "jerk and release" method.  And because they were big dogs, I was advised to use a prong collar, which the dogs didn't seem to mind much and which saved my arm from being wrenched out of its socket.  But Bisou is a sweet- and innocent-looking dog, and people would call the SPCA if they saw me using a prong collar on her.

So instead I use positive reinforcement, which is about as challenging to my physical coordination as playing the violin.  Here is how it works:  with Bisou on my left, I hold the leash in my right hand.  My left hand holds both a clicker and a tiny piece of mozzarella.  As we set out the door, I carol "with me!" and the minute Bisou lurches ahead, which happens right away, I halt.

I stand there like a statue while she, her nose in the air and her front legs practically off the ground, pants "I see a bird!  I smell a mouse!  I feel the grass!  Let me go!"  After many minutes, she eventually turns her head towards me; the leash loosens a tiny bit;  and I spring into action.  I click the clicker and deliver the mozzarella in a single, instantaneous, fluid motion, thus giving Bisou  immediate reinforcement for loosening the leash.

This happens maybe ten percent of the time.  The rest of the time, I forget to click, or I drop the treat, or I treat first and then click.  The thing is, Bisou knows exactly what I want her to do, and what she will get if she does it.  But even for a devoted cheese lover the scent of cat or bird or squirrel sometimes takes precedence.

We've been practicing with this technique for three weeks now.  Is she getting better?  Maybe a little bit.  A tiny little bit.  There are miles of trails around here--every inch meticulously maintained by the residents themselves--and Bisou and I have years of potentially pleasant walking ahead of us.  It is important that we work this out, and I'm not ready to give up yet.  But sometimes, in the dark of night, I despair.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Dog of Thresholds

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a class of gods, called liminal deities, who specialized in thresholds.  These gods kept watch over people as they went in and out of rooms, moved house, or set off on ships into the unknown.

In our cottage, instead of a god of thresholds, we have a dog of thresholds.  Whenever I go from the den into the living room, from the living room into the porch, or from the dining area into the kitchen, my black German Shepherd Wolfie is there, sprawled across the threshold, protecting it. 

In the course of defending our various thresholds, Wolfie may well cause an accident.  He is quite a long dog, and there is no way for us to squeeze past his recumbent form, so we have to step over him, which is fine unless we're in a hurry or carrying something or not paying attention.  But he is so devoted to guarding thresholds that I have to believe that he knows what he's doing, and we need to accept the risk of stumbling over him. 

If the Greeks and Romans considered liminal deities essential, why should we assume that we have outgrown our need for them?  Can it be mere coincidence that Wolfie has taken to threshold sprawling just as we have moved to a new house and embarked on a new way of life at Wake Robin?

There is a second deity in the house:  Bisou, the goddess of sofas and cozy chairs, whose function is to keep the spot from which I have just gotten up from getting cold.  True to her Cavalier genes, she is also the goddess of laps, preventing me from floating upwards like a balloon and banging my head against the ceiling.  She is as uncompromising about this as Wolfie is about lying across thresholds, so again I have to believe that Bisou is on a divinely ordained mission to keep me grounded in the most literal sense.

The life change we have just been through--downsizing and embarking on what some call "a cruise on the river Styx"--has been a transition to boggle most minds.  But anchored to my reading chair by a snoozing Bisou, and with Wolfie guarding the nearest threshold, there's little for me to complain about.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How I Survived the Move

From the first conversation about how maybe it was time to leave the house on the hill, it only took us five months to move into our cottage in Wake Robin, near Lake Champlain.  Some people take years to complete the process of choosing and then moving to a retirement community, but we said, "Why prolong the agony?  Let's get it over with."

This was my husband's and my fourteenth move since the Summer of Love of 1967, and you'd think that all that practice would have made us into pros, but this was by far the hardest move of all.  Since we were swapping a 2400 square-foot house with ten closets plus attic, basement, and outbuildings, for a 1400 square-foot cottage with four closets, we had to get rid of most of our stuff.

You will be surprised to hear that during this period I was not my sweet unflappable self.  In fact the combined anxieties about disposing of truckloads of belongings, and getting it all done in time for the move turned me into a sort of emotional porcupine.

And when, weary and guilt-ridden after a day of packing and sorting and flinging quills at my spouse, I tried to take a break, the chaos around me made it hard to relax.  Unclassifiable objects mocked me from half-filled boxes;  the dogs, anxious and bored, followed me panting from room to room;  and there was no comfortable place to sit. At the rate I was going, when we finally arrived in Wake Robin I would have to go not into independent living, but into skilled nursing.

That was when the universe sent me the inspiration to  re-read War and Peace.  For $.99 Tolstoy's masterpiece wafted into my Kindle and wafted me away from my chaotic Vermont homestead and into 19th century Russia.

I quickly realized that, in the decades since I'd first read the book, either Tolstoy had become a much better writer or I had become a better reader.  My jaw fell open at the masterful characterizations--Natasha's childish arms;  Pierre's spectacles;  Princess Mary's timidity.  My preference for the characters had changed as well.  In my twenties I had had eyes only for the intense, handsome Prince Andre, but now it was plump Pierre's soul that captivated me.  And those battle scenes that had bored me almost to death I now found fascinating--in part because they confirmed my suspicion that there is no "art of war," just a lot of noise and confusion and sheer dumb luck, or lack of it.

The day the movers came, I hardly noticed, so immersed was I in the battle of Borodino.  And Napoleon's retreat from Russia got me through the first hectic twenty-four hours at the cottage.  But the best part of this second reading of War and Peace was being able to take refuge in Tolstoy's voice, which remained the same, both powerful and serene, throughout my travails.  For the last week in the old house, that voice was the only constant in my life, and every time I dove into the book I thought, "does Tolstoy know, wherever he is, how grateful I feel?"

Despite my porcupine impersonations--or perhaps because of them--the move went without a hitch.  In fact, when the movers first arrived, the driver went through the house with me--up to the top floor and down to the basement, out to the garage and the old milking room--and as he passed the piles of neatly packed and labeled boxes he whistled and said, "boy, you've really got things under control here!"  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Here We Are

I finally found my drawing tools, so I made a picture of our cottage:

1.  The Adirondacks
2.  Lake Champlain (visible only in winter)
3.  Weird little gingko
4.  My portable citrus orchard
5.  Grassy knoll mowed weekly by angels in human form

As you can see, my Vermont is still quite green...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ta-Ta For Now

I guess I'll never be one of those heroic bloggers who manage to post every day no matter what is going on in their lives.

What is going on in my life right now is our impending move to a cottage at Wake Robin, a retirement community just south of Burlington, a stone's throw from Lake Champlain.

When I first envisaged this move, I thought I could keep up posting at least once a week, but I'm not  managing even that.  And it's not as if I don't have plenty to write about.  In fact, it's probably  the overabundance of topics that, as much as the sorting and packing, has kept me from posting.

Nothing prompts intensive soul searching like having to hold in your hands and make a decision about every single object in your house.  Some day I may write about all that has been going through my mind this winter and spring.  Paradoxically, this shedding of an old life and jumping into a new one requires the recklessness and optimism of youth, not to mention its energy.
But at present all I can think about is trolling liquor stores for empty cardboard boxes, keeping an eye on my dwindling stock of packing tape, and getting rid of the horrible odor that remains on my hands after a day wearing disposable gloves (I can't decide which I can tolerate better, to have my hands grimy with newsprint or smelling of rubber.)

So for now I'll go away from these pages, to return sometime in June when we're settled in our tiny abode in the northern reaches of my green Vermont.  I'm sure I'll have a couple of stories to tell.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Warbler and the Septic Tank Guy

As a grace note for our potential house buyers, yesterday we had the septic tank drained.  The septic tank guy was dragging the heavy hose across our lawn, when he stopped by the front door, the one we hardly ever use.  "There's a bird nesting in that wreath," he said.  "Probably a warbler..."

I take a minimalist approach to Christmas decorations, but last winter I did buy a plain evergreen wreath for the front door.  A few days ago, I was walking up the driveway, scanning the house for defects, when I saw that the evergreen wreath had turned brown, and was sure to depress and deter anybody who came to see the house.  I decided to remove the wreath right away, and throw it into the dumpster (there is now a glorious rusty-green dumpster parked by the garage), but by the time I reached the house a million other urgencies--call the septic tank guy, the floor guy, the auction guy--had erased the wreath from my mind.

And that's a good thing, because in my abstracted mood I would have flung the wreath into the dumpster without noticing the tiny brown nest sitting amid the brown leaves.  But thanks to our alert  septic tank man, the future of the three diminutive pale-blue eggs is now assured.

I am willing to accept the septic tank man's tentative identification of the bird as a warbler.  (How many septic tank guys on the planet even know what a warbler is?  But in Vermont, he's probably not the only one.)  I've tried to get a look at the parent bird, but every time I come within ten yards of the nest he or she flies out with a loud grouse-like flutter.

Where security is concerned, this bird is a lot more uptight than the bluebird nesting in the back of the house, who hardly bothers to leave his perch when we walk out into the patio.  One thing he does leave, unfortunately, is great Pollock-like streaks of white poop on the newly painted barn-red wall.

So now we have a dismal brown wreath on the front door which cannot be touched until those eggs hatch and the (probable) warbler babies fledge.  And on the back wall we have bluebird poop which will continue to accumulate until the early- and late-season sets of bluebird nestlings take off.

If these birds don't leave us alone, this house will never sell.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Nightmare Driveway

Our house is on the market now, and yesterday I was looking at the listing sheet from when we bought it almost ten years ago.  We must have had pretty good x-ray vision, to see past the oppressive 1980s wallpaper to the plain straightforward bones of the house.  And there was no need for x-ray vision on the view, which was, and has remained, lovely.

On the old listing sheet my husband and I had made short-hand notes to help us remember the house when we were back in Maryland deciding which place to buy.   A scribble in my handwriting reads, "close to farm with Belgian draft horses!!!"  below which my husband added, "long, nightmare gravel driveway."

That driveway gave us much pause.  We had heard stories about mythic Vermont winters, and we imagined ourselves marooned for months on top of our hill, barred from all contact with civilization by our nightmare driveway.

In the end, the view and the Belgians won the day, and we bought the house. 

The view never lost its appeal.  Even now, as I write surrounded by packing boxes, the view out of our tall windows makes me wonder what I ever did to deserve it.

On the other hand, the Belgians--a stallion, a mare and a gelding--remained something I have driven past year after year, admiring their creamy manes and their gold-brown coats, and their habit in bug season of standing nose-to-tail and acting as reciprocal fly swatters.  But I never met the horses personally, never asked their owner's permission to stand by the fence and draw those big heads, dinner-plate hooves, arched necks, curvy rumps.  I never even met the owners.

Surprisingly, the nightmare driveway turned out to be a breeze.  We had the bottom bit  regraded to avoid slithering out in icy weather, and after that, thanks to our conscientious "driveway guy," neither in the depths of winter nor in the worst of mud season were we prevented access to civilization.

The problem turned out to be the absence of civilization, which, ironically, is what I had craved when I decided to move here.  Reluctantly, I have come to admit during the last lonely decade on this hilltop that human contact is as important to me as sunsets and sunrises and birdsong and silent, snow-covered woods.

In our next move, I'm planning to remedy this issue.  In a place that offers over forty-five interest groups, from bee-keeping and maple sugaring to fiber arts--not to mention nearby Burlington and the University of Vermont--there is bound to be a tribe that will welcome me.

But I'm not counting on anything.  A nightmare of one kind or another is sure to appear.  It won't be the driveway this time, because it is short and will be maintained by the community, and it probably won't be lack of human contact.   But no matter how hard I try to anticipate every possible eventuality, something will pop up that I didn't expect. 

Maybe, instead of spending my energies planning and preparing, I would do better to practice breathing deeply, staying flexible, and giving up the comical illusion that I'm in control.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gardens I Have Left Behind

Like the rest of the population of Vermont, yesterday I was out working in the garden, taking advantage of the warmish weather, which was scheduled to turn rainy and raw and stay that way until, oh, probably October.

But I won't be planting a garden this year, since we'll be leaving this house in a month, and while my fellow Vermonters were putting in their cool-season crops--lettuce, kale, turnips, broccoli, cabbage and chard--I was draping my garden in black landscape cloth, keeping it asleep until the new owners come to claim it.

My spouse and I spread the black stuff over the nine 4'x4' raised vegetable beds.  He stapled while I held the cloth taut, and we worked silently, with a sort of balletic harmony made possible by almost five decades of conjugal living.  When it was done the beds looked neat and clean, unlikely to offend the most persnickety house buyer. 

But I couldn't bear to cover all the beds.  Last fall, having raised my first-ever garlic crop, and while the difficulties of continuing to live on this hill were only a shadow in the back of my mind, I picked out the best heads and planted the cloves in two of the beds (you--or rather, I--can never have too much garlic).  Now, despite the apocalyptic winter, guess what's four inches high and bursting with joie de vivre

I couldn't even think of smothering those bright green shoots in their infancy--it would have felt like drowning kittens.  On the other hand, now that my time and energy must go to packing up the house rather than weeding, leaving the two beds open to the sun will mean a crop of dandelions, ground ivy, wild geraniums and clover along with the garlic.

The earliest harvest date, if we get no more snow storms, is mid-July.  Assuming the house hasn't sold by then, this will mean a four-hour round-trip from our new life to reap the last fruits of our old one.  If this crop is like the preceding one, I'll be scattering garlic largesse all over northern Vermont, and a cloud of Mediterranean aroma will settle over our new community on Lake Champlain.

This will be the seventh garden I've left behind, but it won't be my last.  I've already written here about the plan to transport the orchard of potted fig and citrus trees to our new cottage, sort of like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.  There is a tiny area around the cottage where we can grow whatever we like.  I'll see what I can do with it.

My main concern about the upcoming move--way bigger than my worries about whether we will be lonely or bored or drive each other crazy in our tight new quarters--is that the cottage yard has no southern exposure, and everybody knows that the essential ingredient for a good garden is sun, sun, and more sun.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Vroom... Vroom...

It doesn't feel like spring--too cold--and it doesn't look like spring--the trees are still bare.  But it sounds like spring.  And the sounds of spring are guy sounds.

Open your windows on the first warm morning and you'll hear the noise of guys revving their engines.  Perhaps it is a mating ritual, but I am a woman, and can testify that I am not and never have been attracted by the sound of a revving engine, nor do I know any woman who is.  But every spring, right in synch with the first daffodils, there are the guys, on their motorcycles and in their cars, going vroom, vroom.

Animal guys are out there too, making their own noises.  There is the bluebird, alas, who for the third year in a row is nesting by our back porch and spends hours flinging himself feet-first against the window:

bang bang!
bang! bang! bang! (bis)

What is he thinking?  He's not mistaking his own reflection for a rival and trying to scare it away, because he bangs even when there is no reflection.  After three years of watching him, I can only conclude that he's making the bluebird equivalent of vroom, vroom, letting the world know that he's a guy.  The female hasn't been too much in evidence yet, though the banging has not prevented her in past years from laying her eggs.

It is preventing me, however, from enjoying the peace and quiet that I richly deserve after a day of sorting and packing my worldly goods.  Am I the only person in history to be irritated by a bluebird?  For a while I thought that I would miss his company after we move.  Now I think I'll be glad to say good-bye.

This morning we awoke to the sight of a turkey flock sauntering across the front field.  There were six or seven of them, looking sleek as crows.  But one of them, the guy, was swollen into a feathery sphere twice the size of the others.  In the chilly gray light he seemed to float just above the ground, carried along by the breeze like a balloon in a Thanksgiving parade.

Oozing authority, he was herding his harem towards the shelter of the woods.  The hens went along docilely enough, looking as though they were used to this sort of thing.  We were indoors and the dogs, who'd seen plenty of turkeys before but never one in full spring show-off mode, were barking so loudly they rattled the windows.  We couldn't hear the vocal accompaniments to the tom's display, but from the look of his plumage and his swagger, I could tell he was going vroom, vroom.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Portable Orchard

Maybe it's because they are person-sized and their outspread branches look like arms reaching out, but ever since I planted them four years ago, I've grown attached to my apple trees.  They almost seem more like people than plants.  Year-round they stand bravely around the patio, first veiled in flowers, then covered with leaves, studded with fruit in the fall and alternately sleeping and shivering--like me--in winter.

I will hate to leave them behind when we move.  Sure, there will be room in our new micro-garden for an apple tree or two, but they won't be these trees, whom I planted and nursed and fussed over from infancy to their present lovely maturity.

Fortunately, I'll be able to take my stalwart Giuseppina, the potted fig tree (see last post), with me.  But that is not all.

The tiny potted Meyer Lemon that I bought last year gave birth to six outsize lemons that I soaked in vodka and a simple syrup to make a lovely limoncello.  This, and the glossy deep-green leaves, and the fragrance that made my head swim every time I walked by, turned me into a citrus grower of sorts.

I was in Albany on a freezing January day when, going into a nursery for a shot of plant energy, I found a Page Orange tree that had been trained to have an upright trunk and a rounded canopy, just like the ones in Versailles.  I promptly bought it--it was the only one in the store--and brought it home, where it perfumed our sunny porch.  Then its blooms faded and were replaced with multitudes of baby Page Oranges (actually a hybrid between a tangelo and a tangerine) that I mist and murmur to every day.

The next time I was in Albany--how could I not--I stopped by the same nursery, and found a Calamondin Orange. I had had one of these before.  Its scented blooms were succeeded by dozens of tiny bitter fruits that I didn't know what to do with.  But that was before the internet, which has many ingenious uses for Calamondin Oranges.  So I brought the little tree home.

Meanwhile, the Meyer Lemon, which I had pruned to within an inch of its life in the hopes of making it look less like a bush and more like a tree, recovered and started putting out blooms.  But all this was happening indoors, and my experience last year taught me that, although the plant may bloom and set fruit abundantly in the house, only the flowers that are fertilized outdoors tend to make it to harvest. 

I wanted to make more limoncello--lots of limoncello, in fact--but a single tree might not yield enough fruit at one time to make a significant batch.  So I ordered another tree, online.  It is on its way as I write. 

I am doing all this, mind you, while simultaneously carrying out a draconian purging of our worldly belongings.  It is a testimony to my spouse's saintliness that he has not objected to this paradoxical behavior on my part.  True, the citrus trees will spend the summer outside.  But the minute the temperature goes anywhere near freezing, probably around the beginning of October, those four trees will come into our wee cottage, there to be misted and watered and given special lights and get in our way until April or possibly May.

What can I say?  I can no longer keep goats or raise chickens or grow vegetables.  But I have to farm something, and I will pour as much love and attention on those potted citrus trees and on the fig Giuseppina as I did on Lizzy and Emma--the goats--and the hens and the eggplants, the peppers and the apple trees.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


There are few things I like better than practicing subtractive sculpture on the plant kingdom.  So when the snow finally melted last week I picked up my pruning weapons--secateurs, curved folding saw, and long-handled clippers--and set out to whip my fruit trees into shape.

Normally I do this in March, but this has been a long and cruel winter.  The four apple trees and the espaliered apricot had clearly had enough, however, and decided to ignore the frigid temperatures and pay attention to the sunlight, which has been glorious, and get on with things.  The sap was running and they were full of buds, especially the apricot which is crucified against the south wall of the house.

I was amazed at how much the apple trees had grown.  If it weren't for my determination to keep them short enough to be tended by me without a ladder, they'd be fifteen feet high by now.  I hope that their new owners will appreciate picking those 13 oz. mega-apples without even having to stand on tiptoe.

Like the fruit trees, the bluebirds had had enough, and decided to forgo the courtship rituals and proceed with their nest building.  This is their third year in the little nest box by the back porch.  So far this season the male has not attacked our windows.  I'm hoping that he is finally mature enough to know which battles are worth fighting, and which are not.  I'm also hoping that a pair of bluebirds nesting right by the window will prove a selling point for our house.

All winter long I worried about the little potted fig tree that I'd bought on a hot day last summer.  The label said it could withstand temperatures down to -10F, but I was sweating through a Vermont summer that left no doubt in anybody's mind about the realities of climate change, so I didn't worry too much about below-zero nights.

By October the little tree had dropped all its leaves, although a few mummified figs, born too late to ripen, still clung to its branches.  I wrapped the tree in burlap as best I could, set it in a sheltered corner, and retreated indoors.  The snows came and came, and the temperature dropped so low that one of the hens' combs froze and fell off.  The snow weighed down the burlap and made big gaping holes in it.  I didn't think the little tree had a prayer of surviving the worst winter in decades.

After I was done pruning the other day, I unwrapped the fig and peered at it closely.  Its long skinny trunk was still upright, with a few stick-like branches projecting from it.  But it was uniformly gray and dry and dead-looking, with no sign of buds anywhere.  What had I been thinking, trying to grow figs in Vermont?

Figuring that I didn't have much to lose, I took my pruning shears and with the blade made a tiny scratch near the bottom of the trunk--and lo, there was green beneath the gray!  Bright, moist, live, figgy green!  Against all odds, the little tree had made it.

Best of all, unlike my old friends the apple trees and the espaliered apricot and the bluebirds, all of whom I will have to leave behind when we move away in June, I will bundle the brave little fig tree in the car along with Wolfie and Bisou, and take it with me to our new home.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Flashes

They say that when you're drowning, your entire life flashes by.  But that's not the only time this happens.  It also happens while you're downsizing.

A dozen times every day I disinter some long-ignored object that brings up a whole chunk of my life, and I have to ask myself, does this picture I painted, this article I wrote deserve to be kept, or thrown out?  You can see that  downsizing is a lot like drowning, only worse, because you have to pass judgment on every bit.

The books--forty-eight boxfuls--were the first to go .  As I parted with my beloved parasitology textbook I asked myself, what have I retained about the life-cycle of the tapeworm, the loa-loa worm, the blood fluke?  Little more than the ability to predict, when I found Wolfie and Bisou snacking on a dead rabbit, that they would get a case of Taenia, which they did.

And what about the stacks of French novels and plays and essays that I not only read but taught?  I can barely remember who wrote Madame Bovary.  Surely the tide of text that washed over my brain year in and year out left some residue--a starfish or a striped shell or a piece of sea glass?  Some days all I can find are old plastic shopping bags.  Other days the sand is bare.

The art paraphernalia took me some time to sort through.  The dried-out paint tubes, the half-filled sketch books, the dusty mallets and chisels. The framed pictures that fill my closet.  The stone heads that adorn my woods. Now it's almost all gone.  Whew!

At the moment, I'm working on the mountain of implements left behind by the other great fantasy that ruled my life, the earth mother myth.  There's the goat milking stand that my husband made;  the cheese press (ditto);  the heat lamp for the day-old chicks. All those morning chores, those barn cleanings, those births and deaths--where did they go?

This all sounds a little melancholy, but I am not in the least bitter or disappointed. I would say that I am mostly surprised.  Surprised that all that effort and striving, those years and years of cramming and pushing should have led up to...this:  me, getting ready to move with my spouse and my dogs to a retirement community, with one small truckload of worldly goods.

It seems disproportionate somehow, the work and the strain.  It's as if I'd spent my entire life preparing, and now I'm having some kind of graduation and I'm not even sure what I majored in, let alone what kind of work I'm fit for.

"Leap!" a yoga teacher once told me, "And a net will appear."  I have always liked a good leap.  Now, as the waves crash around me and the taste of salt is in my mouth, I trust that the net is on its way.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spring and the UPS Man

Yesterday I had arranged for UPS to pick up a Very Important Document at our house.  But when I went to put it on the porch, I saw that the slate steps were again covered in a thin layer of ice.  No matter how much we scrape, salt, or sand, in certain atmospheric conditions that layer just keeps forming. 

Not wanting the UPS man to die on our steps, I found a white box from the liquor store, wrote "UPS" on it in big black letters, put the Very Important Document inside and set it on the driveway, right in front of the deadly steps and held down by a thick and heavy wooden plank.

It was the quintessential "raw" Vermont day.  The wind blew and the clouds hovered.  The fields and woods were covered with several feet of snow, the top of which had melted and frozen and melted and frozen so that a thick layer of ice covered every inch.  No birds chirped, no peepers peeped--only the occasional crow flew over the desolation.

You never know when the UPS man will make it up our hill, so late in the afternoon I looked out and saw that the liquor box was gone, and the plank was lying in the middle of the driveway.  Why, I wondered, had the UPS man not taken the Very Important Document and left the box behind so I could use it for my packing?  And why had he just dumped the plank in the middle of the driveway?  "I guess he was in a bad mood, after a day of tromping up and down ice-covered walks" I said to my husband.  But still, we wondered, why hadn't we heard the truck?  Why hadn't the dogs barked?

And then the UPS truck drove up.  My husband and I looked at each other in horror, pulled on our coats and ran outside, with that mincing, seasonally-appropriate don't-break-your-wrist-on-the-ice gait.  "The wind blew away our Very Important Document!" we wailed at the UPS man.  "It was in a white box from the liquor store!"

We fully expected him to curl his lip in contempt, turn around and disappear down the drive.  Instead, shouting something about wind direction, he leaped off the truck and took off towards the east.  My husband went north, and I tottered west.

The field was an unbroken sheet of whiteness.  Nothing had ventured on it for months, and the only signs of life were some elaborate mole tunnels under the ice that looked a lot like a DC Metro map. With every step I crashed through the ice and sank above my knees in snow.  To take the next step, I had to raise my leg from the hip, crash through the crust, and look for a white liquor box in that desert of white...

At one point I started to lose my balance, put out a hand to steady myself, and the ice cut my skin like a knife--or at least it felt like a knife.  And it was then that I heard a faraway whistle.  I looked east and saw the UPS man, a reassuring brown against the whiteness, waving the liquor box with the Very Important Document inside.

Next thing I knew, he was bumping his truck down our rutted driveway and grinning from ear to ear.  Stuck in the ice in the middle of the field, I waved and blew him a kiss.