Wednesday, August 5, 2015

No Cat Yet

Three months after Wolfie's demise, we're still a one-dog, two-fish household.  I had forgotten how simple life with a single dog, especially a single small dog, can be.  Gone are interminable grooming sessions, when my arm would give way before making even a dent in Wolfie's perennially shedding, dense undercoat.  Gone are the daily heartbreaking walks, when he would alternate between hopping on three legs and lagging behind on four.  And gone, at last, is the anxious watching--is he getting worse?  Is he miserable?  What should I do?

With only Bisou like a little red shadow at my side, the days seem to have expanded, and I have been using the extra time and energy to revisit a project that I began four years ago--a personal account of my two decades with CFS, enlivened and redeemed by the company of dogs.  A couple of years ago I got as far as printing out a first draft, and then the illness itself took over and robbed me of the  energy to write about it.

But now that I no longer have a garden to tend or meals to cook, let alone a large sick dog to care for, I have managed to revisit that old manuscript.  And that is why I've gone so long without writing here.  I've been busy keeping the almost 70,000 word narrative straight in my head and on the page, taking out enormous chunks of blather (I am, if nothing else, a superb deleter), and striving to tell a good story while also telling the truth, whatever that is.  I used to find writing--essays, speeches, short stories--less than agonizing.   But this memoir business is a bear.  A grizzly bear, in fact.

There are hundreds of writers out there, prolific novelists, essayists, and memoirists who somehow manage to write copiously and continuously on their blogs.  I am not one of them.  You should know that I have been been beating myself up about this regularly, though.  I have been grossly lacking in blogger's noblesse oblige, all but abandoning My Green Vermont without explanation or apology.  But the truth is that I never intended to stop posting.  Every day I would tell myself that I was planning to write a post, that I would very soon write a post, that I was about to write a post any minute now...And then--you know how it is--guilt and embarrassment took over, so that the thought of ever writing anything here again made me cringe.

Today I have obviously stopped cringing long enough to write this, but I suspect that I'll have to get that memoir into a lot better shape before I can post regularly again.  In the meantime, I'm still thinking, thinking, thinking about getting a kitten for Bisou.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

One Dog, Or Two?

When Wolfie expired quietly next to his water bowl last month, I asked the vet to wait before taking his body away.  I wanted Bisou to see him one last time.  I thought she might want to say goodbye, or get a sense of closure or whatever it is a dog needs when her life's companion dies.  But she didn't pay any more attention to that long, still body than if it had been a pile of laundry.  Instead, all her focus was on the vet, whom she loves and who said, seeing my surprise, "I've seen this kind of reaction before.  Dogs are really good at perceiving the difference between 'alive' and 'dead.'  To her, Wolfie is no longer here."

In the following days, I watched Bisou carefully for signs of mourning, but there was nothing obvious.  Then I went away for an overnight trip, leaving her with my husband, who fed her and threw balls for her and was around most of the time.  When I walked in the house on my return, she became hysterical.  She barked and yelped and moaned.  She ran around in frantic circles and barked some more, and couldn't seem to stop.  I finally had to throw balls for her to drain some of that energy and bring her back down to earth.  My husband said, "Maybe she thought that the vet had taken you away like he did Wolfie...."

Wolfie was so much bigger than she that they didn't play together, unless you count as play Bisou's jumping up into his face to get him to yodel and open his mouth wide so she could stick her head inside.  But the two of them would casually check on each other during the day, and sleep close together at night.  I am sure that he was a steadying, reassuring presence in her life, as he was in mine.

Now people are asking if I plan to get another dog.  One friend says, "You should always have at least two dogs.  That way, when one of them dies, you're not left dogless." Another asks, "If dogs kept humans as pets, wouldn't you appreciate having another person in the house?" 

They are right, of course.  But...

Although I have almost always had two dogs (for a while I had three, but that was way too many), there is much to be said for the one-dog life.  It's so much easier, especially if the dog is a reasonable, portable size.  These days, when I go on errands, I often invite Bisou along.  And if I have time after I've done my shopping, I let her out of the car and we go for a walk.  There is just one collar, one leash to deal with.  One "heeling" behavior to correct.  One poop bag.  True, in my two- dog days I sometimes left one at home, but oh, the guilt on my part, and the uncomprehending sorrow of the dog I left behind!  Of course I would tell him over and over that it would be his turn next time, but he didn't know that, he was just a dog, and all he knew was that a terrible injustice was being perpetrated.

A single dog not only means less guilt, but less hair on the furniture, less poop to pick up, fewer nails to clip, fewer vet bills and visits.  And it also means, for me, a more intense relationship with the dog.  As with human marriage, there is something to be said for person/dog monogamy.  Our capacity for love may be infinite, but our time, energy and attention are sadly limited, and it's so much easier when you don't have to worry that you're giving too much to one dog and depriving the other (yes, there goes the guilt issue again).

True, with a single dog there is the danger of neurotic over-involvement on the part of the human.  Sometimes I worry that I've started down that road already.  I find myself wishing that Bisou were half her size so I could take her on airplanes, to restaurants, stores, everywhere.  Will I end up, twenty years from now, mumbling endearments to a Chihuahua in my purse?

I think I can stay vigilant enough to prevent my  relationship with Bisou from degenerating into neurosis.  As for her, as long as her nose keeps her attuned to that universe of smells into which I cannot follow, and as long as her love affair with the entire human race continues, she is in no danger of becoming pathologically attached to me.

Still, it would be nice to be able to leave her for a couple of hours without worrying that her little heart is breaking.  Should I get her a cat?

(To be continued.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Like A Tree Shedding Leaves

Soon the time will come when I can no longer play the recorder.  Well, maybe not soon, but the time will surely come, if I keep on living.  And it seems unfair and sad that, having finally found a way to enjoy playing music, away from the tensions and compulsions of my early experience with the violin, I have only another ten or at most fifteen years in which to do it.  

I went to a memorial the other day for a woman who had lived a life brimming with gardening,  dancing, and art.  She had excelled at all these things, but one by one she had had to give them up--first the gardening, then the dancing, then the art.  By the time I met her she could barely hold a conversation.  She kept shaking her head, apologizing, wanting me to know that she knew what was happening to her.   

How the old apologize!  For a while, in college, I played violin/piano sonatas with an old colleague of my father's.  After a lifetime spent in some exalted music circles, he was losing his grip.  He would forget our appointments, couldn't remember which piece we were playing, lost his place over and over.  And he apologized, and lamented, and insisted on telling me that he knew what was happening to him.  All his pride was focused on his awareness of his decline, on the one thing in the core of his being that was not affected by dementia, not diminished by his inability to find his place on the score or to remember what he had said two minutes ago.  He may have been losing his mind, but he clung fiercely to the awareness that he was losing it—and that was both his torment, and his only consolation.

On my therapy dog visits with Bisou, I watch the various ways in which my fellow Wake Robin residents deal with the myriad losses that age brings, and I feel an urgent need to build a large reserve of humility to see me through the coming years.  I had better make peace with the idea that I am not my writing, or my music, or my hair, or my ability to walk the dog or use the bathroom by myself.  Like a tree shedding leaves in the fall, I will probably live to see each of these abilities leave me, one by one.  How, I wonder, to find a way to do this well, to submit with grace, and to say, with deep acceptance:  yes, this is who I am now?

Friday, May 1, 2015

3,672 Stitches

Three years and 3,672 stitches later, the needlepoint pillow I started from an Ehrman kit is finally finished.  I didn't actually count the stitches.  I just multiplied the number of stitches per inch (12) by the size of the design (18"x17").  Math is so useful sometimes.

When I told a friend--an exceptionally creative woman who is always elbow-deep in some project she has just invented--what I was working on, she opened her eyes wide.  "You are working from a kit?" she said, appalled.  "But that's just like painting by numbers!"

Well, yes, it is--except slower.  And that is precisely why I do it.

After hours of squeezing words out of my brain and onto the screen, or notes out of my mouth and into my recorder, nothing restores my soul like threading a needle with bright-red wool and filling in a poppy petal.  When you do needlepoint from a kit, the goal is to reproduce exactly the design stamped on the canvas.  In a way, it's not unlike playing music composed by someone else, except that the player has a lot more room for interpretation.  With needlepoint, you color outside the lines at your own risk.

When I sit at my embroidery frame, it doesn't take me long to enter into a semi-hypnotic state, lulled by the "thwack"of the needle piercing the canvas and the "swish" of the wool pulling through.  It's a rhythmic activity, not unlike walking, and like walking it frees my mind to saunter at leisure, and even to wander off its usual well-worn paths.  Sometimes, between one row of stitches and the next, an idea comes to me, seemingly out of nowhere, or the solution to a problem appears as I anchor the end of a length of wool.  But the main virtue of needlepoint, as I suspect is true of most varieties of handiwork, is that it is almost impossible to remain tense while doing it.

As petals, leaves, and stems begin to emerge I take pleasure in their colors and shapes, and feel grateful to the artist who created them, just as I send thanks to Georg Philipp Telemann for taking the trouble to write, back in the troubled 1700s, the lovely duo recorder sonatas that I am struggling to learn.  There is so much beauty in this world, and I give thanks to the artists, musicians and writers who make it their own and then offer it for me to delight in.
A while ago, I briefly considered making my own needlepoint designs, but this would negate all the therapeutic effects of needlepoint.  With every stitch I would anxiously question my choice of colors, the curve of a leaf, the shape of the negative space.  It would be like endlessly rereading my own writing, word by dispiriting word.

No, for me, the virtue of needlepoint lies in its very absence of creativity, an absence which, happily but unpredictably, sometimes triggers my own.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My Mother Says...Continued

After her story of the Spanish Civil War, my mother begins to tell how she met my father.  She might never have come across him if my grandmother had been more traditionally minded and kept her in the village, or if the war had not happened, or if my mother had not taken it into her head to learn to play the violin. 

I've known about these near-misses for years, but my cousin in Barcelona recently told me something that her mother, my mother's youngest sister, had revealed.  It seems that in the middle of the war, while my mother was falling in love with communist soldiers on their way to the front and my father was starving in Barcelona, a lieutenant colonel in Franco's army saw her and decided to marry her.  Secretly, he wrote a letter to the priest of my mother's parish asking for information about the family--their political views, religious practices, financial status, and so on.

According to my aunt, my mother was so enraged when she heard that he had written to ask about the family without first consulting her that she never spoke to him again. Whew!  If it hadn't been for my mother's sense of what was her due, I could have been the daughter of a fascist officer.

After the war, my mother says, I went to Barcelona to study Greek and Latin so I could teach high school.  I had become disillusioned with the law, which I had imagined to be about saving innocent people accused of terrible crimes, like in the movies, but which turned out to be extremely dull instead.

There was so little food in Barcelona!  Luckily my mother sent baskets of food from the farm, and Evita Peron sent ships loaded with wheat from Argentina.  (I remember as a toddler being fed pasta that had been sent by "that kind lady in Argentina."  You can read about my grandmother's food baskets here) The bread that my mother sent used to go hard and stale, and little worms would grow in it.  I was always careful to shake them out before I ate.  What? my mother says, seeing our horrified faces, it wasn't as bad as it sounds....

As a teenager, I  had bought a violin because it seemed exotic and exciting, but I had never learned to play.  The people with whom I was boarding in Barcelona recommended a music academy, and I went to meet the teacher.  I was expecting an old man, bald and bent over.  Instead I found a young man with thick black hair and a mustache.

I started taking lessons from him, but for two years we barely spoke, other than about bowing and intonation  (I wasn't a very good student).   Then one day he invited my parents to attend a concert that he was going to give near their village.  Next, his parents invited me and my sisters and brother, who were also studying in Barcelona, to have coffee at their apartment.  And then he started walking me home after the violin lessons.  I was the first woman he ever kissed.

We were married in 1943, in the village church.  His entire family came from Barcelona in a rented bus.  During the Mass, I was kneeling in front of the altar with my long veil spread out on the floor behind me when suddenly I felt a sharp pull:  the altar boy had accidentally stepped on the veil with his boot and torn a huge hole in it.  After the Mass we went back to my parents' farm, had a big meal and drank lots of champagne.

That night, we tied the mattress and the sewing machine that my parents had given us to the roof of the bus, and rode back to Barcelona with all the relatives.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Mother Says...continued

The three years of the Spanish Civil War, my mother says, were the worst of our lives.  But they were nothing compared to what your father, whom I didn't meet until after the war, went through.  He was twenty-two when the war began, and he was already earning a living as a violinist.  He loved music more than anything else in the world.

When the war broke out, he was living with his parents in their apartment in Barcelona--it was normal for grown-up children to stay with their parents until they married.  Also living in that apartment were his two younger sisters, and his older brother and his wife, who was from Mexico.  Also the maid, whom the family had taken in long ago as a young orphan.  And sometime during those years the older brother and his wife had two baby boys, so there were ten people living together.

Your father had gone to a Catholic school and had belonged to a Catholic youth organization.  This was enough to make him a target of the anarchists, the Reds, and anybody who wanted revenge for the abuses committed by the Church, the bourgeoisie, and so on.  People betrayed each other all the time, from principle, envy, or resentment.  

For example, one night the militias came to the house of one of his school friends.  He hid under the sofa but they dragged him out and put him on a truck and carried him away to be shot.  But he was a very charming man, and he managed to make friends with the guard--offered him a cigarette and chatted with him--and the guard let him jump off the back of the truck and make his way back home in the dark.

Your father's brother was safe because he was married to a Mexican woman, and Mexico was on the side of the Republican government.  But there is no question that your father would have been killed if people had known where he was, so for three years he had to hide in the apartment.  At one point the owner of the building, afraid for his own life if it became known that he was sheltering someone, asked the family to leave.  So they moved to a different apartment, and that was the only time, from 1936 to 1939, that your father went outside.

Not only did he have to stay indoors and keep away from the windows, but he couldn't play the violin, or even speak in a normal tone of voice.  He had to walk as quietly as he could.  He was healthy and young and full of energy, and he could do nothing to defend himself or to help his family except to turn himself into a ghost--and paint buttons.  At that time, women's dresses were decorated with large buttons made of tagua, a plant material that looks like ivory.  So your father, who had always been good at drawing, earned a few pesetas painting tiny scenes on buttons.

For three years, crammed together in that apartment, the family starved.  We, on the other hand, my mother says, shifting to her own family, were never really hungry, since we lived on a farm.  We could grow vegetables--even in the winter there were always cabbages--and my mother kept rabbits and chickens, although the soldiers on the way to the front would often take them.  They didn't take the pigeons, however, so we ate a lot of pigeon, which nobody liked.

But if you live in a city and there is a war, you are helpless.  Food was almost impossible to find in Barcelona.  Before going to bed at night your father would drink lots of water at the kitchen spigot, so that his empty stomach wouldn't keep him awake.

The war finally ended with Franco's "liberation" of Barcelona.  There was a big parade and your father went to see it with his sister.  It was the first time he'd been outdoors in three years.  I guess he was dazed by the sun and the noise, but when Franco's car drove past he forgot to raise his hand in the fascist salute.  He was immediately picked up and led away to be interrogated.  Thousands of suspected Communist sympathizers were being executed by Franco's forces in the days after the war, and he would have been too, except that the family mobilized everyone they knew, including one influential Catholic industrialist, to vouch for him, and he was released.

One day soon after that, your father and his brother were out looking for food, which was still very hard to get, and they found (or they may have stolen) a big sack of beans.  They were so weak that between the two of them they barely managed to drag it back to the apartment.  All the Benejams ate beans for months, which is why, my mother says, smiling, after he and I married we never ate beans again.  Or pigeon.

(To be continued.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

My Last Big Dog

I will miss that long black body that was forever blocking, it seemed, my way around the house.  I would lift my knee and step over him and he would acknowledge me with a brief thwack of that long tail.  (I will not miss the tail, which had been known to knock small children off their feet and would clear wine glasses off the coffee table with a single sweep.)

I will miss his gravitas.  He liked things to be in their place and people and animals to behave  properly.  I got the first hint of this when he was ten weeks old.  At the end of puppy class the instructor threw half a dozen stuffed toys on the ground for the puppies to play with.  Wolfie retrieved them all, piled them up in the middle of the floor, and lay down next to them--not in a guarding, aggressive way, but looking pleased that order had been restored.  Once, when a boisterous puppy came to visit and was annoying Bisou, Wolfie quietly but efficiently, for the entire length of the visit, put himself between them, herding the puppy away from Bisou.  As he got older he became intolerant of even the mildest marital horseplay, and would streak to my side, with high pitched warning yips that clearly said "stop that at once!"

I will miss his gentleness.  He wasn't particularly big for a Shepherd, but he had a huge black head and pointy alert ears and white canines that looked like scimitars.  People who didn't know dogs found him scary.  Yet never once, in the eight years we were together, and no matter what I did to him, did he growl at me.  Whenever one of the hens escaped from the chicken yard he would dash after her looking like death on wheels, and catch and hold her down to the ground with his jaws.  Every time I felt sure that the hen would perish, but she never did, and I never saw so much as a drop of blood.  From earliest infancy Bisou entertained herself by leaping at his face, growling until he opened his mouth wide and yodeled, at which point she would stick her head into that great maw....

For the last four years, an insidious malady that five vets, including two specialists, could not diagnose slowly sapped his strength and made him lame in his front foot.  Our walks got shorter and shorter, and he became a silent presence around the house.  Then two nights ago, in the middle of a spring snow storm, I let him out and he lay down on the white ground.  When I asked him to come inside he didn't seem to know what I meant.  We had a long, uneasy night together.  By morning, I knew that he was dying. 

The vet came and could only guess at a "neurological event" that may or may not have been related to his mysterious illness.  It was clear to both of us what the right thing was to do, and he did it deftly and respectfully.

Now Wolfie is at rest, and so in a way am I.  There is relief in having the constant worry about him  taken away.  I will not miss the endless shedding and brushing (although the birds will feel deprived in the coming nesting season).  I will not miss the special diets, the pills and herbs that never helped.  I will not miss the guilt I felt every time I had to cut short his walk and then continue it with Bisou. 

My life just got a lot simpler.  But there is a palpable absence in the house, a dog-shaped black hole that my heart keeps falling into as I go about my day.

Monday, April 6, 2015

My Mother Says...continued

Last fall I began retelling here my mother's memories of growing up in a Catalan village in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.  You can catch up on those posts here:

When the story resumes, it is 1936, and my mother is forced to abandon her law studies at the University of Valencia because of the start of the Civil War.  I cannot even begin here to summarize the social, political and economic forces that led to that bloody three-year conflict, widely regarded by historians as a rehearsal for the Second World War.  Suffice it to say that purges, reprisals, summary executions, betrayals, wholesale destruction of centuries of art and architecture, and unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides--the insurgents led by General Franco, and the communist-backed, democratically-elected Republican government.  If you are interested, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia offers an in-depth, first-hand account of the early months of the war.

I was studying law at the University of Valencia, my mother says.  I was the first girl from my village to leave home to be educated, and I still cannot believe that my mother let me go.  Of course, I was carefully watched.  I stayed in a convent, and every morning one of the nuns walked me to my classes and then back to the convent.

I studied Roman law, canon law, political economy, civil law...but then the war began and the convent was burned and I had to go home.  I was eighteen years old.

The beginning of the war was a time of terror.  As a landowner, my mother continues, my father was at risk of being dragged out at night by anarchists and shot in a ditch, as many were.  But because he had always had liberal ideas, and because as a vet he had often cared without charge for the donkeys and mules of farmers who were too poor to pay, he was always warned when a purge was coming, and he would hide in the fields while my mother stayed in the house to keep it from being burned.  (My mother doesn't explain how my grandmother's presence in the house would cause it to be spared, but perhaps even the most rabid anarchists had a taboo against burning a house with a woman in it.)

I was afraid every minute of the three years the war lasted.  Summer and winter, night and day, when the planes flew over on the way to the front, we ran to hide in a ditch near the house.  We wore a small stick tied to a string around our necks, and we bit on it when the bombs fell close by, to keep the blast from bursting our eardrums.  My parents, my two younger sisters, and my little brother and I sat in the ditch in a fetal position, so that if we were hit we would be killed instead of maimed...The constant noise from the airplanes and the bombs and the anti-aircraft guns made me feel that I was losing my mind. I would gladly have committed myself to a life of poverty if that could have brought about peace.

I learned very early that all nations are capable of cruelty.  I also learned that human kindness is not defined by political allegiance.  As prosperous, middle class landowners, we were in danger from the communist troops on their way to the front, which was close to our village.  They did take our car, and they demanded wine and chickens.  Their espadrilles were soaked in fascist blood.   But those same soldiers shared their bread with us, and on the eve of what was expected to be an especially fierce battle they helped us to dig a shelter out in the field and camouflage it with branches, so we would not be killed by the retreating communists.  We slept in that shelter for a whole week, in December.

You know what was the saddest thing?  Towards the end of the war, the Republican government was running out of men, so they started drafting fifteen and sixteen-year-old boys who barely knew how to fire a gun, and sending them to the front.  People called them la quinta del biberon, the baby-bottle draftees.

All this time, I kept falling in love with Republican soldiers (not that they ever knew it), even though I knew that they would probably soon be killed in battle.  Of course, my mother reassures me, I had not met your father yet.  He was in Barcelona, and for him the war was even worse than it was for me.

(To be continued)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Bisou Loses Three Friends

During the ten minutes or so that it took my spouse and me to decide to move to Wake Robin, we asked the resident couple with whom we were having dinner if they could tell us one thing they did not like about the community.  The woman shook her head--she couldn't think of anything--but her husband said "Yes, there is one thing:  you make friends with people, and then they die."

Now, barely four months into her therapy dog practice in Linden, Wake Robin's nursing care facility, Bisou has lost some of her best friends.

On our weekly visits, not everyone reacts to Bisou with the same degree of enthusiasm.  Some people are too ill to do much more than give her a silent smile and a tentative pat.  Others are more interested in talking to Bisou's human retinue, especially to the young male staff member who accompanies us and on whom they dote with grandparently affection. 

But you can always tell the dog people.  Their faces light up as we come in the room and they pat their knees and invite Bisou up into their laps.  She looks into their eyes and they go into rhapsodies, telling her what a good girl she is, how smart, and what beautiful long red ears she has.  Then they tell her about the dogs they used to have.  Long-dead German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Irish Setters, Labs, and Poodles big and small come back to life in these conversations, walking the kids home from school, retrieving pheasants, wolfing down a stolen box of cookies.... Bred to be a good sport, Bisou listens and lets herself be held.  When it's time to go she hops down and walks out of the room, nose to the ground, hoping for an errant crumb.  The dog lovers keep their eyes on her as she leaves.  "Look at that tail," they exclaim.  "It never stops!"

Over the last few weeks, three of Bisou's most affectionate admirers have died.  One week they were there, frail but dressed and sitting up, asking her for kisses, telling stories, oblivious to the red and gold hairs that she shed on their clothes.  And the next week they were gone, and the doors to their rooms, which used to be decorated with posters and photos and signs saying "Visitors Welcome!"  were closed.

It isn't easy to walk with Bisou past those newly closed doors.  But I'm grateful that I have her to keep me from taking comfort in the veil of secrecy with which our culture surrounds the end of life.  I know that the pleasure that our visits bring to the residents of Linden is only a small and momentary thing.  But while we're there, Bisou sitting on a narrow lap, me kneeling on the floor and trying to keep her from sliding off, we are fully invested in the moment which, in the end, is all that the resident in her wheelchair, Bisou with her wagging tail, and I really have.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Smell Confessions

First thing in the morning, the dog breathes on my face.  Even though I brush her teeth every single day, Bisou’s morning breath is a little off.  And yet, while I recognize its slightly swampy overtones, it pleases me.  If it were the breath of another dog, I would probably be offended by it, but it is the breath of my dog in whom I am well pleased, and so it is o.k. 
When they first put my newborn daughter in my arms, I bent to smell her hair and was instantly transported back to the five-year-old me, standing with my grandfather in the pig barn.  One of the sows had just farrowed, and my grandfather reached into the wiggling, snuffling litter, picked up a piglet, dry and clean from its mother’s tongue, and gave it to me to hold.  I put my nose to its cream-colored bristles, and inhaled the subtly rancid scalp smell that twenty years later would be my first experience of motherhood.  

I've never met a stinky cheese I didn't like-- Camembert or Taleggio, the riper and runnier the better as far as I am concerned.  On the other hand, and this may seem strange coming from a former goat lady, I cannot abide the "goaty" tang of most goat cheeses.  It is the musk of the rutting buck, and if you ever go near one of those Beelzebub-like creatures, dousing himself with his own urine in preparation for lovemaking, you won't forget it.  Milk absorbs smells easily, and the scent of a buck in the farm down the road can contaminate the milk of a sweet-smelling doe.  When my does came back from their autumn visits to the buck, I would feed their milk to the dogs and chickens for three days before I could even think of making cheese with it.  But lots of  people appreciate a whiff of buck in their cheese, and who am I to judge?

For my part, I find the smell of skunk as I drive down a country road in summer pleasantly reminiscent of the Jovan musk cologne that I used to splash on myself every morning back in the 80s, when shoulder pads proclaimed our womanly assertiveness and it was not yet politically incorrect to wear perfume.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Some Advice On Downsizing

Last spring at about this time I was in the throes of preparing to move to Wake Robin. It was the downsizing of a lifetime, the move before the final move to that tiny house that awaits us all--you know, the one where there’s no room to even stand up, not that we will want to stand up then.

Over three months, a constant torrent of stuff streamed out of our house--forty-eight boxes of books, some wooden spoons, a pressure cooker, my graduate school notebooks, a coin collection, the cheese press my husband made for me....  The books went to the library sale;  the pressure cooker and the coin collection went to the auction;  and I gave away the cheese press.  The grad school notebooks I guiltily jettisoned into the rental dumpster that decorated our yard.

Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I feel qualified to pass on the following advice to those of you who are contemplating a similar move or are simply feeling trapped by too much stuff:

Don't give yourself a lot of time.  It’s going to be agony no matter how you do it, so take a deep breath and rip off the band-aid in one swift yank.

Remember that you are not your possessions.  More than that, your dearly departed--your mother who gave you that vase, the friend who painted that picture--are not that vase, or that picture.  They are not even IN the vase or the picture.  They are in your memories, and in your heart.  It's o.k. to let go of the things they left behind.
Don’t foist your treasures on your descendants.  It’s not their fault that on your wedding day you received seven silver nut dishes for which you have no use or space.  It’s not their fault that in a moment of madness you spent half your rent money on that oak Victorian desk.  They have no space for the desk, and they are too busy to polish silver.  Possibly they have never liked the dishes or the desk.  Taste in furnishings is not necessarily transmitted in the DNA.  Don’t take it personally.
If you decide to sell things, don’t expect to get for them anything near their real value, let alone the sentimental worth that they have accumulated for you over the years.  In this day of cheap goods, we are all drowning in material possessions.  Selling your things for a pittance, or giving them away, is the price you pay to have them disappear from your life, and it's a small price for the relief you will feel.
Trust me when I say that most objects, once you let them go, you will never miss.  You may never even remember them.  You think you’ll never be the same without your blue glass canning jars?  Go ahead and wrap them in newspaper, put them in a box from the liquor store and send them to the auction.  Once they’re out the door, if you ever think of them again it will be with the same serene fondness with which you now recall that boy you loved so desperately in high school, and the broken heart you thought would never mend.

(Sorry for the weird formatting--I can't seem to be able to fix it.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Crow And I

Isn't it funny how we age, not in a uniform manner, but bit by bit, haphazardly?  To me, it feels as if a bird were flying around me, brushing me with its wings and occasionally pecking at me.

My personal bird-of-aging is a crow, and not unattractive, with its blue/black plumage and clever yellow eyes.  I can hear its wings beating above my head and sometimes I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye.  Occasionally it flies so high that I think it's gone away for good.  But it comes back as faithfully as a well-trained falcon.

Some days it pulls out a few of my hairs, but with such a delicate touch that my scalp doesn't feel a thing.  It makes regular passes over my hands, thinning the skin and fattening the veins.  Lately it's been pecking at my lower back:  until a few weeks ago I could roll out of bed in the morning, bend over and touch my toes.  Now I can still do this, but not until after breakfast.  I used to sleep like a log, no matter what was going on in my life.  Exams, job interviews, the onset of labor--nothing kept me from my date with Morpheus.  But now the black bird comes into my bedroom at night and flits and preens and fluffs its feathers, and makes me toss and turn.

Yet my feelings towards this crow are not unfriendly.  I've gotten used to its comings and goings, to the way it peers at me with its bright yellow eyes, head tilted to one side, planning which part of me it will touch next.  I have accepted this inevitable companion.

My animal escort reminds me that I am an animal too, vowed to the same end as the field mouse whose dessicated remains Bisou retrieves from under some leaves at winter's end, or the deer whose jawbone Wolfie fetches proudly out of the woods.  The mouse, the deer and I were cared for by our mothers, loved our children and feared our enemies in ways more similar than we humans like to imagine.  And like the mouse and the deer I will, mercifully, not go on forever.  With my crow leading the way, I will walk the path of my last days until, like the creatures of the sky, the fields and the woods, I become one with the Mother of us all.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fish Hospice

My Betta is in hospice.

For weeks he's been lying at the bottom of the big vase that's been his home for the last four years.  His veil-like fins are ragged and torn, and the iridescent blue scales on his tiny body have turned the color of sand.  Every morning I look at him and think, it's all over now, he's finally dead.  But as I stand there rehearsing burial scenarios I'll catch the flicker of an eye, or the slight shudder of a  pectoral fin. 

I bought him because he looked like a flower, with his creamy trailing fins veined with pink and blue, and his bright azure body.  And then I discovered that he wanted a relationship.

At first I only noticed that whenever I went near his vase, which I kept on the kitchen counter, he would swim towards me.  Then one day I idly stuck my index finger in the water and he swam straight to it.  I wiggled my finger and stroked a fin, then stroked again, and he stayed right there, like a dog.  After that I felt obliged to give him daily stroking sessions.  How could I not?  He was so much more than a flower.

"Want to pet my fish?" I would ask my friends.  And they would stick their fingers in and my Betta would swim up to them--but he only swam towards female fingers.  Let a male of any age, no matter how mild, put his finger in and the Betta would swish his lacy tail and swim away.

Now he's dying.  Every time I walk by his vase I think, he's probably suffering.  He's ancient for a captive Betta, and he'll never recover.  I should probably euthanize him.  But the days pass and I can't seem to do it.  Mind you, I have in the past done the right thing by my old and suffering dogs and cats, and taken them to the vet to be put down.  I have personally clubbed to death wolf spiders that were bigger than my Betta, and in the prime of life.  But this is different.

So for the moment, I'm giving my fish palliative care, trying to keep him comfortable but avoiding extreme measures.  I change his water regularly.  I make sure his heater is on.  And now and then I look into his eyes, which still appear to look back at me, and I tell him that he's the most amazing fish I've ever known, and that it's all right to let go.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Frida Y Yo

On bad days I think of Frida, nailed to her bed by pain, staring up at the ceiling, wondering when her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, a man as round and fat as the sun, would come home, and if he was finished making love to her sister. 

She dressed in Mexican folk costumes, partly because the long skirts hid her polio-withered leg, and decorated herself with chunky necklaces made from broken Aztec beads.  She braided her hair with colored wools and piled it on top or her head and put big bows and flowers in it until it looked like an altar to some garish god.  She wore all this while she lay in bed, recovering from one or another of 30 operations to repair her spine and pelvis, which were broken in a streetcar accident when she was a girl. 

She had a mirror attached to the underside of the bed canopy so she could paint while lying down with her canvas propped up against her knees.  Over and over, she painted herself against backgrounds of glossy leaves and fruits, embraced by monkeys and surrounded by butterflies and parrots, hummingbirds and a little hairless, gray-skinned Xoloitzcuintle dog. 

Critics say that she lacks universality, that her art is only about herself.    Prolonged illness turns you inward, and what else can you do while everybody else is out going about their business but ruminate about yourself?  "I paint myself because I am so often alone," she said.

She didn't make it to 50.  She died of a clot in her lungs, having recently undergone the amputation of a gangrenous leg, and of the alcohol and pain killers to which she was addicted--though for the latter, who can blame her?

I lie in bed with Bisou asleep on my stomach and wonder, how did Frida keep from getting oil paint all over herself when she painted lying on her back?  Were her monkeys and her dog allowed on the bed? With her appalling pain, how did she manage that impressive string of love affairs with men and women, cabaret dancers, movie stars and intellectuals, and were they just a way to get back at Diego? 

Most of all I wonder, what kept her going?  What reservoir of grit and rage drove this tiny hirsute woman to paint 140 pictures that, even if you don't like them, you will never forget?

She was not a nice person, as she was the first to admit.  Yet to me she is a saint of sorts, the patron saint of those whose bodies have betrayed them but who struggle to make their stories be about something more than just that.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Wisdom, Where?

When eating organic/vegetarian/gluten free, working out at the gym, and drinking eight glasses of water a day cease to delay the inevitable, baby boomers console themselves by thinking that, although age does not improve one's looks, at least it makes one wiser.

We've all heard how, having ceased to strive for mates and worldly success,  no longer driven by the urge to please others, we are finally free to be ourselves.  Some studies actually show that people become happier as they age.   Whether or not we've grown rich in money and offspring, we have all grown rich in experience, and thus qualify for the job reserved for elders in traditional societies since time immemorial:  the role of counselor, seer, and sage.

I cannot tell you how weird this makes me feel.  Whenever I hear my contemporaries yammering on about how much more serene, centered, and happy they are than they used to be, I wonder if I am retarded somehow, and if I have missed some crucial step in this final, blessed phase of life.

At seventy, I do not feel one speck wiser than I did in my thirties.  On the contrary, not only have I forgotten 85% of the things that I once knew, but the hole that that knowledge left behind, supposedly to make room for a new hoard of wisdom and discernment, remains a vacuum into which I daily stare, and shudder.

As for the role of counselor and village sage, don't make me laugh!  In my callow youth, if someone asked for my advice I jumped to give it. But now, if you ask my opinion on what you should have for dinner, I will be struck dumb.  Truffle-stuffed quail in puff pastry?  Beans and rice?  A simple cup of broth?  How can I answer when I don't know what's in that stuff, or what your body needs at this moment, or what beans feel like on your tongue.

To quote the man in the Vatican, who am I to judge?

As for being happier now than I was years ago, I am grateful that I don't have to shave my legs as often, but I can't think of too much else to be glad about.  Still, I can say that age has made me a little kinder. I am more understanding of people, less inclined to criticism or anger.  For one thing, anger takes energy, of which I have little to spare.  But mainly, my awareness of my own deficiencies makes it easier to forgive them in others.  Again, who am I to judge?

But maybe that's where it's at, in the end--not wisdom, or knowledge, or even Love with a capital L.  Just the homely, workaday practice of kindness.  No matter how much organic kale we eat, how many miles we run, or how deeply we meditate we are all headed downhill.  But as the light dims and the wind grows colder, we can at least aim to be good company for each other.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Zen and the Recorder

Now that I have entered my eighth decade, I am learning to play the recorder.  There is no time to lose, so I practice daily, much to Bisou's dismay.  The minute she sees me pick up the green plastic case that houses the instrument, she tucks her tail between her legs and leaves the room.  And I don't blame her--the squeaks and whistles I produce often make me want to leave the room.
But as if the noises weren’t bad enough, there is an additional humiliation:  spit.  When an inexperienced player such as I puts the instrument to her lips and begins to blow, saliva escapes into the mouth piece, adheres to the inside of the pipe, and does terrible things to the sound.  With the exception of occasional lapses during deep sleep, I haven’t salivated involuntarily since I got my first teeth.  And now here I am, practically a century later, drooling helplessly into my recorder.

Like one of Pavlov’s dogs at the sound of the bell, the minute I start to play my salivary glands go into overdrive.  This happens especially during a lesson, or while I play a duet with one of my recorder buddies.  We all know that stress triggers bad things, from headaches to heart attacks.  For recorder players, stress triggers salivation, and viceversa.  Sure enough, as soon as I hear that half-choked, reedy sound that indicates the presence of moisture in the pipe I go into alarm mode, which in turn raises my stress levels and causes rivers of spit to gush into my instrument.

“What can I do about this awful drooling?” I asked my teacher after a particularly cacophonous session.

“Just relax and accept it,” she said, sounding more like a Zen master than a recorder instructor. “Here, try reaming it out with this,” she added, handing me a cylindrical swab.

And she was right.  The swab helps, but the real key lies in my mind and in my heart.  The more I make peace with my salivary glands, the less they feel they have to assert themselves.  Sometimes I manage to play an entire piece without having to swab.  But if, in the middle of a passage that is going well, I think to myself “wow, this sounds pretty good!” the spit instantly pours forth.  It is not unlike what happens to me in meditation when, for a few fleeting moments, I manage to stay with the breath.  As soon as I begin to congratulate myself, my monkey mind leaps into action and all is lost.

My teacher assures me that with time the spit problem will get better, though it may not go away completely (that is why they make those special swabs).  Until then, it seems that the best technique is a spiritual rather than a musical one:  I have to stay open to the possibility of drools and squeaks, errors and embarrassment, and keep on making music as best I can.