Friday, December 28, 2018

Morning List

Every morning, right after breakfast, I should get down on the floor and meditate. A mere twenty minutes will make me a calmer, happier person, but only if I do it every day.

A long as I’m down there, I might as well do a few yoga poses—just cat and cow and maybe tree so I’ll be more limber when I go to my Friday yoga class.

Which reminds me that on Tuesday I have tai chi, and it would be a good idea to run through the form a few times so I don’t forget the moves. You have to do these things every day to reap full benefits.

I mustn’t forget to take Bisou for her walk, especially since she has recently gained one pound, and needs to lose it (as do I). Morning walks are best, while the day is young and the scents of the night creatures are fresh on the grass.

And then there’s Telemann, the cat. After Bisou’s walk I should bring out his furry snake and make him chase it for a bit. It might help him to spend more time napping and less time flying around the house breaking things.

Speaking of Telemann (the composer, not the cat), I need to work on that Fantasia of his. My recorder teacher says that I’m only allowed to skip practice on the days when I don’t eat. As with other challenging things, it’s best to get it done early in the day.

Remember that old advice for writers, nulla dies sine linea—not a day without a line? I should do my writing before the morning’s gone. I always feel so much better, having written.

Also, before my eyes get tired from looking at the computer, I should do some drawing. As they say, use it or lose it.

Then there is the list of unanswered emails that has been haunting me. The only way to deal with it is to be disciplined and make it a part of my morning routine.

And I should definitely take a daily spin through Facebook—why do I seem to be the only person who can’t keep up with it? I should check it first thing every morning, while I’m still fresh….

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Walking Lessons

I got home from high school and found my mother walking up and down the hallway behind my toddling sister. My mother was stooped over, holding the baby’s hands to keep her upright. My sister had a determined look in her eyes, but my mother’s face was screwed up with pain. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m teaching her to walk, of course.”

At sixteen, I didn’t know much about babies, but we had studied evolution in school, and I thought that our ape-like ancestors must have transitioned to bipedal locomotion without special instruction.

“Don’t you think she could learn to walk on her own?” I said.

 “No, no. She’s too little! She would fall and break a tooth, or hurt her head. I have to do this, even if it breaks my back.” My mother let go of the baby’s hands and straightened up slowly. My sister sat down on the floor and howled.

“See what I mean? She never gets tired. What a child! I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” my mother sighed, resignedly pulling the baby upright and holding her hands.

Leading from the hip, my sister thrust one fat leg forward, wobbled, balanced, then stuck out the other leg. My mother followed, groaning. I went into my room to do homework and reflected, for the first time, on my mother’s hands-on mothering style.

I remembered being spoon-fed by her long after I could cut my own meat. By the time I could recite the multiplication tables she was still combing my hair, washing my face, tying my shoes, buttoning my coat up to my chin and reminding me not to take it off without first obtaining her permission.

She did all these things with a rueful smile that said, “Motherhood! Such a glorious but demanding vocation.” Labor, according to her, did not end with the  baby’s birth, but was only the prelude to a lifetime of effort and sacrifice on the mother’s part.

Now, watching her give my sister walking lessons with my critical adolescent eye, it occurred to me that her intense involvement with my sister and me may have had more to do with her tsunami-like life force and its search for an outlet than with our real needs.

The first girl from her village to attend university, she had studied classics and then law. But when she married she gave it all up to do...not much of anything.
With my father at work, a live-in maid to do the housework (we were by no means wealthy, but in Spain in those days you didn’t need to be to have a maid), and just one child to look after, she was starving for challenges—opinions to sway, people to lead, victories to savor.  And there I was in the next room, gnawing on the crib railing, waiting to be perfected.

It was probably in her DNA, because my mother’s mother was just as driven and intense. But she at least had a farm to run while my grandfather, a vet with no head for business, was off taking care of the village livestock. She had sharecroppers to supervise; wheat, oats, and olives to send to market; broody hens to coddle; rabbits to fatten, slaughter, and cook; and four children to raise.

But it looks like my grandmother too believed that babies would never learn to walk unless they had proper instruction. Here she is, in her farmyard outfit, ensuring that I will not have to spend my life in a wheelchair. She is holding me upright with a kitchen towel drawn up under my arms. This keeps her from having to stoop, a back-saving technology that my mother would have done well to adopt.

I look pleased to be standing on my own two legs. Probably, I’ll want to keep going long after my grandmother is ready to stop. I can see her now, rolling her eyes, proudly complaining to my mother, “Ai, Maria santissima! What are we going to do with this child? She’s worn me out. All she wants to do is walk!”

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Tire and I

Back in the mists of our early marriage, my husband showed me how to check the air pressure in the car tires. But those were the halcyon days of full-service gas stations, when the attendant always asked “check your tires, ma’am?” I would answer yes, and he would crawl around the car doing whatever was needed while I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and looking off into space.
Now, a half century later, the chickens of my cavalier attitude towards tire maintenance have come to roost. Twice in the last six months, while I was far from home, the tire warning light gave me a fright by coming on.

The first time was during an episode of “wintry mix,” when the sky was simultaneously spewing rain, snow, and those annoying Styrofoam-like ice pellets. I was wearing a down vest instead of a parka and shoes instead of boots—I had expected to stay in the car, after all—and when I pulled into a filling station I had to tromp through a mountain of gritty snow that the plow had piled in front of the air pump.

I connected the air pump hose into my tire, got some quarters, waded into the snow bank, fed the machine, returned to the tire—and nothing happened. I offered the machine more quarters, hoping that my generosity would persuade it to disgorge some air, with no success. As a layer of wintry mix hardened on my glasses, I went into the station and asked for help.

“I’m sorry, the machine is out of order,” the attendant said.
“Do you know where I could find one that works?”
“Nah, not around here…”

Shivering, I got back in the car, dried my glasses, and drove home with bated breath, the tire light flashing reproachfully all the way. While I recovered with a glass of wine by the fireplace, my husband quickly inflated the tire with his portable air pump.

The next time the tire light came on was a sweltering July day. I was driving through the adorable Vermont countryside, replete with cows and barns, meadows and ponds. I stopped at a country store and was told that the nearest station was 30 miles away, but when I got there, there was no air pump. After more miles of hills, woods and farms I found a station with an air pump, which was out of order.

Sweating from every pore, holding my breath lest the tire go completely flat, I traveled on and at last found a station with a working pump. But by then I was so frazzled and dehydrated that all I could do was throw myself at the mercy of the cash register guy, who kindly inflated my tire while I sipped some Gatorade.

It took a while—about five months --to gear myself up for it, but yesterday I announced to my husband that I was going into the garage to check the tires, and would he stick around in case I needed help.

It was 20F outside and barely warmer in the garage, but I figured that this would be good practice for me, since the tire light liked to come on in extreme weather.

I found the air pump, plugged it into the cigarette lighter socket, and approached tire #1. I have a lifelong aversion to getting my hands dirty, and I wear gloves to dust a book or wash a dish, but this job would require fine manipulation, so gloves were out of the question. Trying to keep from touching any dirt, I unscrewed the inflation nozzle cap with my fingertips. This required me to kneel on the unpristine floor, but I reminded myself that in a real situation, i.e., by the side of the highway, conditions would be far worse.

“O.k.,” my husband said, “now screw the air hose connector onto the nozzle.”
I had to bend my arm at a weird angle to do this, and no matter how hard I tried the hose connector refused to connect with the nozzle. By now my fingers were red and stiff with cold, and smudged with grease.

Suddenly, a hiss as from a thousand cobras came out of the tire. “Quick! You’re losing air! Keep turning the screw!” my instructor said. But my frozen fingers could barely function, and the hiss was making it hard for me to concentrate.

Somehow the hiss stopped, and I checked the pressure gauge: 32 psi—just right.
But as I began to unscrew the hose connector, the hiss started up again. “You’ve probably lost too much air. Check the pressure again,” he instructed. I did: 31psi. “You’ll have to reinflate,” he said.

I rescrewed the connector onto the nozzle until the hiss went away. I pressed the On button on the pump and held on as it blasted air into the tire. I checked the pressure: 33 psi. I’d have to let some air out again, take another reading, reinflate….

What circle of hell, I wondered, was I stuck in? Would there ever be an end to this? Would my frozen fingers bend again? I didn’t remember the station attendants of yore having all this trouble.

Somehow, I got tire #1 done. I had to grab the door handle to stand up (my knees were frozen too). I brushed the dirt off my pants, hobbled over to tire #2, and genuflected. Some neighbors walking by saw me struggling with the air pump while my husband stood by with his hands in his pockets, and quickly averted their eyes.

Contrary to my expectations, tire #2 was no easier than #1, and neither was #3 or #4. Practice was not making perfect here. At one point there was an episode of cross-threading that I don’t want to even think about.

“I think that’s good enough,” my husband finally said of my work on #4. He helped me up and led me into the house.

“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed, scrubbing my hands at the kitchen sink and slathering lotion on them. “Am I going to have to go through this every time I check the tire pressure? It’s too damn hard! There’s got to be a better way.”

“Uber?” said my husband.

But I will not capitulate. Research shows that it takes on average ten thousand hours to master a skill such as playing the violin. Assuming tire inflation to be only 50% as difficult, that means I’ll have to spend five thousand hours crawling around on the garage floor, screwing connectors and reading psis before I get it right.

Even so, I have no illusion that I’ll ever approximate the easy grace of those gas station guys of yore who so sweetly used to ask, “Check your tires, ma’am?”

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Critters in my Bed

On my grandparents’ farm, a chick hatched with a twisted leg.  “Wring its neck, or the others will peck it to death,” my grandfather advised. But my grandmother had other ideas.

She lined a shoe box with hay, punched holes in the lid, and put the chick inside. She set the box in a brown wicker basket, along with twelve eggs individually wrapped in newspaper, a slab of fatback from last year’s pig to flavor my mother’s white beans, and a cabbage from the garden.

My uncle got on his bike and rushed to the recader, the messenger who got on the train and delivered my grandmother’s weekly baskets to us in Barcelona, where I was recovering from measles.

That evening the chick was on my bed, pecking at breadcrumbs.

I spent a good part of my childhood in bed, with colds and fevers and sore throats. I would pass the hours by imagining faces in the cracks in the ceiling and making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers. Sometimes, nearly mad with boredom, I crawled under the sheets, all the way down to the foot of the bed, and stayed there until lack of air pushed me gasping back to the top.

My grandmother’s chick changed all that. Cheeping and hobbling on the sheet, flapping his stubby wings, he kept me company. Together we listened to the clanging of the streetcars outside and the singing of the maids as they washed the dishes in the neighboring apartments. Together we waited for the stories that my mother and my aunts took turns reading to us.

When, decades later, I was diagnosed with CFS, another, much longer era of bed rest began. But there is no real rest in this condition--just a malaise of mind and body, like the onset of a flu that never goes away, and an inability to relax or get comfortable, while the mind treads obsessively on the same well-worn track: This can’t go on! What can I do to get better? What if I never get better?

During what I call my horizontal days, there is little that other humans, no matter how loving, can do for me, since the energy to talk or even listen is more than I can muster. But I am never lonely. A long roster of critters, the successors of my grandmother’s lame chick, have kept me company through the worst of the illness.

On my bed these days you will find little red Bisou, a Cavalier, and Telemann, a gray cat. They love it that my CFS keeps me mostly at home. Best of all, for them, are the days when, after breakfast, I have to go back to bed and stay there. “Yay!” they say to each other as they rush past me into the bedroom, “she’s going back to bed!”

I lie on my back and Bisou reclines against my left leg. Telemann sits on my chest, purring and kneading, his white toes spread wide. Then he touches my nose with his, blinks three times and falls asleep.
So do I, if I am lucky. Otherwise, I close my eyes and try to remember Buddhist precepts (“pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”) but they bring me little comfort. Instead, I place my left hand on the dog, my right on the cat. Bisou’s long, flat coat feels like satin; Telemann’s short, thick fur feels like velvet. Their ribs rise and fall under my fingers, and gradually my own breathing slows down. We doze in a pile like an ill-assorted litter, and I can feel the oxytocin lapping at my tissues.

My spouse looks in. “Won’t you rest better if I get the animals out of here and close the door?” he asks.

“No! Please leave them. We’re fine,” I assure him. I can’t imagine anything more depressing than me alone in the room, obsessing about things left undone that I may never get done (what will my friends think if I cancel X? Will my loved ones stop loving me if I don’t do Y?) It would be like going back to my pre-chick days.

What impelled my grandmother to send me that bird? She belonged to a farm culture in which all animals, wild and domestic, were kept strictly outdoors. The hunting dog was chained in the yard, and the semi-feral cats that emerged from the hayloft only to beg for bread crusts never knew the touch of a human hand. A chicken in bed with a sick child! What could be more unsanitary, dangerous, disgusting? But fortunately for me, my grandmother listened to the instinct that told her that the lame chick would do me more good than any drug.

When the afternoon light begins to fade Bisou checks her inner watch: is it dinner time yet? Telemann yawns, executes a perfect down-face dog, and jumps off the bed. I throw a parka over my pajamas and take Bisou outside. Indoors, Telemann leaps miaowing from windowsill to windowsill, urging her to hurry up. 

After dinner, they both get the zoomies. Telemann hides behind the sofa and leaps on Bisou as she trots by. She turns and chases him under the bed. He dashes out and bats at her wagging tail. When he starts to lose interest, she paws at him to get going again.

We make a good team, the dog, the cat, and I. Together we have lived through another day without giving in to despair. I haven’t done the laundry, played the recorder, written a single line, or washed my hair, and there is no guarantee that I’ll be able to do these things tomorrow. But B and T, now stretched out before the fireplace and blissfully digesting their meal, aren’t thinking about tomorrow, and perhaps neither should I.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Life Before Plastic

When the first factory-made men’s shirts arrived from America to Quito, Ecuador in the late 1950s, they came in clear plastic bags. I don’t know which of my classmates first realized the potential of the bags as ultra-modern, super-cool book carriers, but when she showed up in school with her books neatly encased in one of those bags, we all longed for the day when we too could discard our hand-tooled leather satchels and replace them with plastic bags.

When my mother finally bought one of those shirts, she let me have the bag. I remember carefully sliding my books and notebooks into it, and admiring the effect of my school things neatly contained by a material that, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, simultaneously protected and revealed them.

But my plastic bag was as fragile as the glass slipper, and after a while the corners of my books made holes in it. I didn’t much care, however, because by then my parents and I were packing our suitcases for our new home in the land of plastic, America.

Before those bags, for the first thirteen years of my life, in Spain and later in Ecuador, I had lived a plastic-free existence. The objects that surrounded me were made of wood, metal, glass, stone, wool, cotton, clay, paper, straw, rubber, or celluloid.

Other than paper, very little was ever thrown away, and objects like the red clay pan in which the maid washed the dishes, or the long bag of unbleached cotton in which she brought the bread home from the bakery, had been around since before my birth, and I thought of them as sort of second-class members of the family.

Other than as containers for dried flower arrangements, who uses baskets anymore? But all through my childhood the eggs, almonds, cherries and sausages that my grandmother shipped to Barcelona weekly from her farm came by train in a deep two-handled wicker basket covered with burlap, and both basket and burlap were piously preserved and returned to her by that same train.

When my mother went to the fish market she carried a flatter basket, its handle looped over her arm. I had a basket of my own, a smaller version of my mother’s.
I loved the fishwives, goddesses who sat enthroned above their displays, wearing blood-spattered white aprons decorated with broad bands of lace.

Fish of all sizes and colors, squid, octopuses, mussels and clams were arranged mandala-like on round wicker trays, and gleamed as brightly as the rose window of a gothic cathedral. After my mother had made her choice, the peixatera would wrap up for me a single iridescent blue sardine, to carry home in my own little basket.

The Mediterranean of my childhood was crammed with fish, one of the few reliable bounties in those hardscrabble, post-civil war years. Now it, like the rest of the waters on the planet, is having the life choked out of it by millions of tons of plastic—fish-ensnaring, habitat-poisoning, indestructible plastic, most of it in the form of plastic bags.

The plastic bags that had seemed so rare and precious to my schoolmates and me in 1958 have become the banner of environmental destruction. Things must change, and soon. In the words of Joanna Macy, “While the agricultural revolution took centuries, and the industrial revolution took generations, this ecological revolution has to happen within a matter of a few years.”  (quoted by Richard Rohr)

The scope of the disaster is so enormous that I often want to just give up. But if optimism is the only moral choice, then I must act as if my efforts count. So in my own small battle for the survival of the planet, I keep my flag—a well-worn New Yorker canvas bag—in the back of the car, and proudly fly it when I walk into a store.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Passionate Cursive

Life of my heart, the only woman I have ever kissed, I want to kneel at your feet forever… my 28-year-old father writes.

A stack of letters between my parents has lately come into my hands. The first letter dates from 1941, at the very start of their courtship, when he is her violin teacher, and the last is probably from 1953, the year before we leave Spain for Ecuador.

Between those two dates there are dozens of letters, most of them written by my father in Barcelona during the times my mother is at her parents’ farm in the country. But during their courtship he writes even while they are both in the city and he sees her every day. He walks her home from the university and then goes to his parents’ apartment, finds a quiet corner and pours out his adoration on paper (goddess of my dreams, star of my firmament, joy of my life…).

The next day he meets her at the usual place. “When I would see him coming,” my mother once told me, “I always looked at his breast pocket, to see if there was a letter peeking out.”

There usually was, and these and the letters that he wrote during their times apart make for overwhelming reading. The first time I plowed through them, I had to take breaks, because their intensity made me gasp.

Does anybody still write love letters like these (adorable angel, without you the city is a desert, gray and dead, and I wander the streets like a soul in torment…)? Her beautiful hair, the soft skin of her cheeks, her hands, her eyes, her sublime spirit have kindled in him a flame that will never be extinguished…With his music and her love, he tells her over and over, he needs neither wealth nor fame to be the happiest man on earth.

In letter after letter, my father’s elegant handwriting unfolds across the page like a visual melody. How can these harmonious loops and strokes, these impeccably parallel lines, hold so much ardor?

My mother’s letters—there are several in the collection—match his in intensity, but the writing is often illegible. Sometimes the handwriting leans forward, others backward, and the words stretch out or bunch irregularly on the page, propelled by the changing rhythms of her feelings. 

But my musician father was accustomed to containing his emotions within the boundaries of a certain form, and even in the transports of amorous passion, his pen-holding fingers kept a steady beat. Which is why, reading his letters almost a century later, I can feel his young heart, beating in my hands.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Paleo Nights

In tribes who still live much like our Paleolithic ancestors, people don’t sleep through the night. Soon after dark, they climb into their hammocks in the smoky communal hut and fall asleep, then get up a couple of hours later to add wood to the fire, nurse babies, or make more babies. Then they go to sleep again.

Some researchers maintain that the concept of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an artifact of the post-Edison era, an expectation that leads to frustration, anxiety…and insomnia.

I used to be a sleep athlete. Once my head hit the pillow, or the headrest of the car or the airplane seat, I was asleep within seconds. But those few seconds were so delicious that I used to wish I could prolong them. And waking up in the morning I would regret that during all those hours of lovely sleep I had been, well, asleep.

A memory: I am seven years old and getting over a bad case of measles. The doctor tells my mother that she needs to get me out of Barcelona and into the country to breathe fresh air and regain the kilos I have lost. So in spring, in the middle of the school year, my mother packs our suitcase, we kiss my father goodbye, and we take the train to my grandparents’ farm.

I have many reasons for rejoicing, being away from my scary German nuns and my even scarier classmates. I can step out of the farmhouse and, without having to hold anyone’s hand, cross the courtyard, stop to pat the chained up Irish setter who is only let loose in hunting season, then turn the iron ring that unlatches the heavy, weathered wooden door, and take myself for a walk on the dusty road that borders the wheat field.

But the best memory of those weeks is the orxata d’ametlles * that my mother brings me in bed at dawn. This super-rich almond milk takes time and muscle to prepare. First the hard, pitted shells of the almonds, harvested the preceding fall from my grandparents’ trees, have to be cracked with a hammer. My mother or perhaps my grandmother then blanches the almonds, slips off their skins one by one, grinds them in a mortar, strains them through an old linen napkin, and seasons the resulting liquid with cinnamon and a little lemon zest.

At first light, my mother glides into the bedroom and wakes me. With my eyes half closed, I slurp the orxata through a straw—a real straw from the haystack, yellow and shiny and vaguely redolent of summer grass. The orxata, sweet, thick and a bit floury, feels like a dream in my mouth.

But better even than the lingering flavor of almonds is my mother pushing me back down onto the mattress, pulling up the covers, and tiptoeing out of the room. This  allows me to savor, twice in a single night, the pleasure of falling sleep.

The  orxata did its work, my mother and I returned to Barcelona, and those dawn interludes became a thing of the past. For decades after that, except for the short periods when I had babies to nurse, I slept for eight, ten, or twelve hours at a stretch, every single night.

But not any more.

Now I have to coax sleep to come to me, as if it were some shy wild creature. I practice state-of-the art sleep hygiene. I go to bed at the same time every night. I take a couple of herbal supplements for their real or placebo effects. The bedroom is a temple of Morpheus, dark and on the cool side. There are no TVs or laptops or phones--just a slumbering spouse, the cat Telemann, Bisou, the dog, and me, counting my breaths.

Sometimes my strategies work, but often they don’t. Some nights my yet-to-be-replaced left hip hurts, and I have to keep changing position. Some nights nothing hurts, and I still can’t fall asleep.
Eventually there’s nothing for it but to get up, find my glasses, and sneak out of the room. I pad to my study and turn on the lamp. Through the window, I can see the moon shining on the snow. The house is very quiet.

Now what?

Soon Telemann and Bisou join me, and then it gets a bit crowded in my narrow recliner. After an hour or so of reading or staring at the moon I lead the way back to the bedroom. Telemann and Bisou go back to sleep, and so do I.

What is so terrible about this? Why can’t I learn to like my weird new nights?

I resent it that sleep, once reliable as a well-trained dog, no longer comes when called. I miss the blessed confidence that, no matter what was going on in my life, I could blot it out by turning out the light and pulling the covers up to my chin, consigning my anxiety/nervousness/sadness to temporary oblivion. Sleep was a harmless but effective drug, always within reach, one that didn’t need a doctor to authorize refills.

What, I wonder, did my Paleo ancestor do—the one who wasn’t up nursing or making babies? Did she fret about the wolves howling in the distance? Did she revisit old sorrows, guilts, and regrets and wish that she could make them vanish by going back to sleep?

Or, being a wise old woman with a touch of early Zen in her philosophy, did she throw another log on the fire, pull her blanket over her shoulders, and stay present with her feelings as the moon moved across the sky?

*orxata d’ametlles (horchata de almendras in Spanish) is the Catalan term. You can find a version for contemporary kitchens here.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Don't Think About Tiger

“Don’t focus on finding a man,” old self-help books used to advise husband-hunting women. “Instead, get involved in something: take an evening course, join a bird watchers group, volunteer. And when you least expect it, the love of your life will appear.”

Lately I’ve been coming across similar advice, albeit on topics other than finding a man.

Like everyone I know who has tried to meditate, I often feel frustrated at my seeming failure to get anywhere. What is the point, I wonder, of sitting day after day with aching hips and knees while my mind compiles grocery lists and resurrects old forgotten gripes? When will I finally see results, find peace of mind, achieve even a dumbed-down version of enlightenment?

 Here is Thomas Merton on how to approach meditation (which he refers to as contemplation): “[A] law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.” (Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 2)

As with finding a mate, it looks like the only way to reach a meditative or contemplative state is not to go at it head-on, with focus and singleness of purpose--not, in other words, in the way that we were taught at school. Rather the trick seems to be in a sideways approach, not looking the thing directly in the eye but waiting quietly for it to come to you, sort of how you might entice a wild animal.

Speaking of wild animals, I found an astounding example of this “pursuit by indirection” in a Nature documentary about the rare, elusive, and endangered Siberian tiger.

Sooyong Park, a Korean photographer, lived five years in the far eastern forests of Russia filming the tigers. He spent as long as seven months at a time in complete solitude, hunkered in a four-foot hole he had dug in the ground and roofed with planks, or up on a tree blind. He subsisted on rice, nuts and salt, in -30F temperatures, as he waited endlessly for the tigers to appear.

At one point, having gone eighty days without even a glimpse of a tiger, he became entranced with the beauty of the falling snow and started filming that instead. And that is when not one but three tigers—a mother and her cubs--appeared.

Towards the end of the video, a biologist who is also hoping to film the tigers asks Sooyong Park for advice.  Here is Park’s response:

“Don’t think about tiger!
 Only hear,
feel the Nature.
And then maybe tiger come….”

We each long for our own tiger. But perhaps, instead of crashing through the forest after it in the time-honored American way, we could try waiting patiently, focusing on our daily tasks, and paying attention to what is before us.

And then maybe tiger come.

(Park’s five years in the forest, which left him so weak and wasted that he could barely walk, yielded unprecedented footage of Siberian tigers in the wild. You can see it here.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Birds And Cats

First, a confession: I am the previous owner of several outdoor cats. I believed I was doing the right thing. My cats were neutered. They had food, shelter, and regular vet visits. They were free to climb trees and chase butterflies. I loved to watch them stalking in the garden like miniature tigers.

When the first one, black Grendel, came back from one of his nights on the town with one ear and half his face torn off, I rushed him to the vet, who managed to sew him back together. Soon after that, Grendel went away again and never came back.

The next one, an orange kitten named Gato, somehow broke his leg while playing in the garden. The vet put it in a cast. When the cast came off, Gato went exploring, and we never saw him again.

Mitsou was an exquisite chocolate-point Siamese. Her head and face were round, a throwback to the days before anorexic-looking, sunken-cheeked cats reminiscent of runway models became fashionable. In love with her looks, and tired of losing cats, I kept her indoors, where she ruled the household, especially the dogs, for seventeen years.

I adopted Pascal, a black and white kitten who had been abandoned by his mother, before his eyes opened. He had to be fed every two hours, so I put him in a cardboard box and took him to the office. After each feeding I would take him to the bathroom where I would enact a mother cat’s attentions by wiping his nether regions with a washcloth dipped in warm water.

As Pascal grew, and grew, so did his affection for me. I could not sit down without huge, rangy Pascal flinging himself on top of me, purring and kneading and drooling, eyes half-closed in bliss. If I had left the back door open, I doubt that he would have chosen to leave my side. But I didn’t. Pascal was an indoor cat.

But then we moved to a suburb of DC and I had a long commute, which meant that we had to install a dog door so the dog could let himself out to the fenced-in yard during the day, which also meant that Pascal became an indoor-outdoor cat.

He had a grand time, and became an expert hunter of moles, something that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him. His record was nine moles in a single evening, which he laid in a row next to my lawn chair while I sat watching the sunset.

But within six months he was dead--poisoned, we think, by licking antifreeze off somebody’s driveway.

You see where this is going?

While many an indoor cat lives as long as twenty years, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is two to three years. Needless to say, my present top-predator-in-residence, Telemann, lives strictly indoors.

But Telemann’s safety is only half the reason why I keep him in the house. The other half is the welfare of the innocent chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and woodpeckers who come to our feeders.

There is no doubt in my mind that, despite his exquisite diet of raw turkey, given five minutes in the yard sweet Telemann would turn into a bird-killing machine. According to the Bird Conservancy, in the U.S. cats kill approximately 2.4 BILLION birds a year. This makes cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds (human-caused because we’re the ones who let the cats outside).

With a pane of glass between them, however, Telemann and my birds coexist peacefully. It didn’t take long for the birds to figure out that the kitten swatting at them just inches away from the feeder was prevented by some invisible magic from catching them.

For Telemann, the birds outside the window are just another joy in the joy-filled life that we strive to provide for him. When they are eating, he leaps from windowsill to windowsill to get the best view, looking fierce and waving his tail like a tiger on the hunt.

And then there are the squirrels, gray like him and almost his size, bold enough to “touch” noses through the glass. They are the big game, the zebras and wildebeest of Telemann’s savannas.

Is Telemann frustrated because he can’t crunch on the neck of a titmouse, or sever a squirrel’s spine? Probably. It is in Telemann’s nature to enjoy killing things, just as it is in mine to enjoy eating the flesh of lobsters boiled alive. But I don’t, and I survive the deprivation, and so does he. Telemann and I already have almost too much pleasure in our lives.

But the birds, those little harmless beautiful bits of Nature, are threatened everywhere by the loss of woods and fields and bugs and wildflowers. They suffer from sudden and bizarre weather events. And they are eaten by the small tigers that we love. They need all the help they can get. 

So Telemann does his bit by staying inside, and I do mine every morning, when I clean his litter box.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Camels, Not Reindeer

In my Catalan childhood Christmas was a time of manger scenes (the manger left empty until midnight Mass, when the long-awaited  Baby was placed in it); ancient carols (some of them funny, having to do with misbehaving shepherds); and my favorite dessert, turrons d’Alicant, the almond nougat bars that required a hammer to break them into individual portions.

Gifts were out of the question until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, el dia dels Reis. The night before, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar guided by a star came swaying atop their camels to leave gifts on the balconies of apartment houses all over Barcelona.

As the days after Christmas passed—the feast of the Holy Innocents, those poor babies slaughtered by paranoid Herod; the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr--my anticipation grew. It was the culmination of a months’ long pregnancy-like state, which began every autumn with my spotting the doll of my dreams in the window of a toy shop.

Like a lover, I would bring up this doll in every conversation, point her out to my mother whenever we passed the toy store, and meditate on her every night before going to sleep. Finally, towards the end of Advent, I would write my letter to the three Kings, humbly imploring them to bring me my longed-for child.

After that, it was out of my hands, and all I could do was pray and wait until the night of January 5th, when the ceremony of “the laying of the trays” took place.

There were two of these trays, one for the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, and one for our own balcony. First, we went to my grandparents.  After my grandmother finished entreating my father not to kill himself by working so hard; my father’s younger sisters asked his opinion about some musical performance they’d just heard on the radio; and everyone had a glass of sherry “because it was such a cold night,” I was buttoned into my stiff winter coat and my grandfather flung open the balcony.

My father would lead me out on the balcony and point toward the heavens. “You see that bright star up there? That, I am almost certain, is the star of the Three Kings. It is especially bright to help the camels find our balconies tonight.”

My little black-clad grandmother (she had just lost her eldest son to cancer and malnutrition following the Spanish Civil War) would totter in on her high heels, bearing the tray, which held a dish with three pieces of nougat for the Magi and another with three leaves of lettuce for the camels. She handed me the tray, I set it down carefully on the balcony floor, and we all knelt while my grandfather led us in an Our Father.

Back in our apartment, my parents and I laid out another tray and, after another Our Father, I was sent to bed. There I would lie in a fever of excitement only equaled by what I experienced the night before my daughters’ births. Would the Reis really come, and would I find my doll, my child, on one of those trays in the morning?

Despite the anticipation, I always managed to fall asleep. But one year—I must have been five or six—I awoke in the dark and saw, standing at the foot of my bed, none other than Balthasar, el rei moro, the Moorish king, the most exotic of the three. He had a thin face and dark brown skin, and wore a turban and robe of a fine, scintillating green material. I still remember the look of otherworldly kindness in his eyes.

Although my night visitation only happened once, in the morning there was always the doll. One year it was a rubber doll with a hole in her mouth and another between her thighs. I could pour water out of a tiny baby bottle into the mouth and then experience the thrill of changing diapers. Another year it was a Black doll, dressed in ruffled white organdy. And one year there were two dolls, Pituco and Pituca, with arms and legs made of a spongy material that could be bent in all directions.
Those dolls were, without exception, infant or toddler dolls on which I could vent my maternal instincts and practice for what everyone anticipated would be my future career. If someone had handed me a doll with breasts and hips and feet in tiny high-heeled shoes I wouldn’t have known what to do with her. The last thing that Barbie looks like she needs is a mother.

The year I turned eleven we were living in Ecuador. That Christmas there were no grandparents, no turrons or manger scenes.  No laying of trays on January 5th. I was growing faster than my mother could let down the hems of my dresses, and puberty was around the corner. My mother thought it was time to have a talk.

 “You do realize,” she said, “that the gifts of the Magi actually come from the parents?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know. Of course.”

But I was appalled. Appalled that that world of ceremony, mystery, and feverish anticipation--and also the world in which I was la nena, the center of a watchful, loving circle of grandparents and aunts and uncles--had suddenly vanished forever.

 And I was embarrassed, of course, that I was eleven years old and starting to grow breasts and my mother had had to break the news about the Magi. But I was a backward kid, reluctant to grow up. I wonder now if my mother felt sad to dash my illusions, or if she was irritated by my stubborn naivety.

Either way, she did what she had to do, and I’m grateful she spoke up. But around this time of year I always wonder what it would be like to wake up in the night and once again see the Moorish King standing at the foot of my bed.