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.