Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Face of Love


I don’t have the words yet to explain why what I want is so important, so I open my mouth wide and yell, and stamp my feet.

Olé, olé!” my mother claps, “Are you a flamenco dancer?”

If I had been frustrated before, now I am enraged. How dare she? How dare she mock me when I am trying to communicate something crucial? I would like to fly across the room and bite her on the leg. But her ploy has worked, and I swallow my tantrum, lest she laugh at me again.

My aunt swears that she taught me to read when I was three, so this next scene must have happened around that time: I am in a store with my mother. A nice woman, dressed in black (women in black are everywhere in Barcelona in these days after the Spanish Civil War), strokes my cheek and, for some reason, asks me if I can read.

“Yes, I can,” I answer.

“No. You don’t know how to read yet,” my mother says.

“Yes! Yes! I can read!” I insist.

My mother pulls an envelope out of her purse and thrusts it in front of my face. “O.k., then, read this.”

The letters on the envelope are small, rounded, and crowded together--not at all like the big, clear letters of the alphabet that I have just begun to learn. The writing swims and blurs before my eyes, which are filling with tears. How can she humiliate me like this in front of a stranger? Isn’t she supposed to be on my side? And didn’t she just the other day, when I finally made it to the end of the alphabet, exclaim “What a big girl you are—you’re reading!” I feel betrayed and full of spite, and I would bite her if I could….

It seems odd that a little kid would have a fully developed sense of personal dignity, and would react with such force when it was attacked. Where did this come from? Was there an extra gene for dignity in my DNA? Or does the fact that those rages felt so primal mean that they were less about dignity than about survival as my own person?

In the coming years, I learned to divert my rages and do to myself what I would like to do to my mother. In my room, with the door closed, I would roll up my white uniform blouse and bite my forearm hard enough to leave tooth marks.

I don’t think that my mother, who was not a cruel woman, realized any of this. If she had been mean all the time, it would have been easier for me to take a stand, and simply hate her. But hers was the face of love in my life.

The happiest moments--happier even than the morning of January 6, when the Magi brought me gifts--were those occasions when, my father being away, she would let me share her bed and we would cuddle before I fell asleep enveloped in the smell of her skin.

To me she was more beautiful than any woman in all of Spain, possibly in the entire planet. I embarrassed her one day when, coming back from Mass, I confided that I’d been examining the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, demure in her white veil, blue sash, and mild expression, and concluded that my mother was every bit as beautiful as She.

But if in the daytime I found my mother as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, at night I had a recurring nightmare in which a green-faced witch, not unlike the one I’d seen in The Wizard of Oz, drew me irresistibly toward her.  The horror of the dream lay in my utter helplessness, in the knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried to oppose her, she could, by the sheer force of her personality, bend me to her will.

To my huge relief, just before I disappeared into the witch an angel who looked to be my own age appeared and whispered, “Stay with me, and you will be o.k.” I did, and we watched together as a gust of wind carried the witch away. I haven’t had that dream in a long, long time, but I remember with gratitude the heaven-sent angel of my childish rage, who, in the nick of time, flew down and returned me to myself.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Miracle


“And please, God, send me a little brother or sister”: this was the coda that, as a child, I appended to my nightly prayers for years, with no luck. I prayed as I would have prayed for a dog or a kitten--something or someone that I could relate to on my own level, who would stand with me inside the circle of ever-watchful, concerned, loving adults. Someone, especially, who would distract my mother from her intense focus on me. A fellow soldier in the battle for a separate self.

My parents prayed too, but I'm not sure they did anything besides praying and exercising their “conjugal rights,” like consulting a specialist. Or did the fact that I slept in their room until I was in school keep that longed-for second child at bay?

Although openly affectionate with each other, my parents adhered to a Victorian standard of modesty. Until his final illness, I never saw my father even in his robe. When I was still sleeping in their room and he got up in the morning, he would say “Don’t look! I’m going to get dressed now.” By using the plural form of the verb, he was ensuring that I believed that my mother wasn’t allowed to see him naked either. At night, in the dark, I would sometimes hear them whispering, and for a joke I would make whispering noises back at them. But I don’t recall ever hearing anything remotely sexual.

Years passed, and I was exiled to the Murphy bed in my own bedroom down the hall, but still nothing happened sibling-wise. After a while I stopped asking my mother why my prayers went unanswered, but I never stopped praying—not through our four years in Ecuador or our move to Birmingham after that. Then, when we least expected it, my mother got pregnant.

We marveled and rejoiced and gave thanks, but, at four months, my mother miscarried. I remember my father, as he walked out the door to rush her to the hospital, turning to tell me not to look in the bucket that was left in the bathroom, which he had hurriedly covered with the lid of the old-fashioned washing machine tub. I obeyed, and while I was in school the next morning, he buried the baby, a boy, in the backyard.

We all gave up hope then. What, after all, were the chances of another pregnancy after fifteen years of sterility and a miscarriage? Apparently they were excellent because, the year after that, at age forty-two, my mother got pregnant again. We held our breath and prayed hard for nine months, and this time my sister, the long-awaited miracle, was born, and all was well.

I had just turned sixteen, and far from being embarrassed, as teenagers are said to be, by this scandalous evidence of sex among the elderly, I was thrilled. Even though she wasn’t the companion I had prayed for, I loved the strangeness of this new creature, and the disruption she created in the household. I peered at my sister with the same intense curiosity as I had watched the chickens and rabbits of my grandparents’ farm—why did she cry every evening when the sun went down? Were her early smiles the real thing? What made her clench her fists and pull up her knees when she cried?

I threw myself fervently into the diaper-changing and bottle-washing routines. I longed to feed the baby, but my mother jealously guarded that function.  I wondered at her anxiety that my sister, born at a vigorous seven pounds, would starve to death if she didn’t finish her bottle at every feeding. I was aghast when she pinched her tiny nose to force open her mouth so she could insert the nipple. Surely a baby knew when she’d had enough? It was my first consciously critical look at my mother’s parenting style.

“Weren’t you jealous?” people ask me when they hear the story. Alas, no. Jealousy would have implied a shift in my mother’s attention away from me. But my mother was perfectly capable of continuing to scrutinize my face, my posture, my dress, my sleep habits, my tone of voice, and the state of my soul while she held my sister in her arms. My sister and I were, in fact, two only children, and although my prayers had been answered in the literal sense—I now had a sibling—I was still without the fellow soldier I had longed for in the guerrilla wars against my mother.

But if I didn’t gain a comrade, I did reap other benefits from my sister’s late arrival. All the diaper-changing, bottle-washing, and babysitting I did from ages sixteen until my parents finally loosened their grip and let me leave for graduate school at twenty-one stood me in excellent stead when I had my own children in my mid-twenties.

For one thing, despite the prevailing ethos, I was determined to breast feed them, having had enough of washing and sterilizing bottles and mixing formula during my teenage years. For another, having carried a baby on my hip while I myself was still growing, I had somehow learned to trust that a healthy infant is a sturdy creature, not likely to keel over and expire without warning. Although I had my share of maternal anxieties, compared to the perennial jitters of the other young mothers around me, I felt relaxed and free to enjoy my babies.

My sister is closer in age to my daughters than to me. She and I grew up not only in different eras but in different countries and with different languages. But despite all those differences, when we speak she often shocks me by saying something that could only have come from the lips of one of my mother’s daughters.
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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Bisou at Seventy


My little red Cavalier, Bisou, just turned seventy in dog years, which makes her almost my age. How did she get there so fast? Every day I scan her for signs of aging, as I do myself.

She sleeps more than she used to, and she only occasionally gets the zoomies, which in her youth were her default mode. Her hearing is failing. Unlike me, however, she doesn’t have recourse to hearing aids, nor to cataract surgery, although her eyes are growing cloudy, and if she were human she would be worried about driving at night.

We both languish in temperatures over 75F, so we take our walks early in the morning or after sundown. When I see her panting and looking haggard, I start to wane myself, and we head home, where, after extracting burrs and seed pods from her fabulous “feathers,” I give her an ice cube to chew while I rub one on my pulse points.

 I worry about her teeth. Despite daily brushings, she’s had to have several pulled, and for her, dental implants are not an option. So far her muscles and joints are holding up, and she leaps on and off the furniture with relative abandon, but for how long? And when her hips start acting up, will I get her a hip replacement, to match my own? Although this surgery is available for dogs, I doubt that I’ll put her through it.

She was such a wild puppy! At nine weeks, no bigger than a cantaloupe, she would entice my two German Shepherds, Wolfie and Lexi,to chase her. She had a much tighter turning radius than they did, and she calculated her chances of escape to a nicety. If worst came to worst she would dash under a broccoli plant—the super-obedient  Shepherds, who had been taught never to set foot in the garden, could be counted on to come to a screeching halt at the edge.

But if they did catch her, she had perfected what I called the “omelette flip,” turning on her back and exposing her defenseless little belly, which would instantly disarm the big dogs.

Inside the house, she flew from sofa to windowsill to coffee table. One day, chasing one of the Shepherds, she tumbled down our steep staircase. I rushed to pick up what I expected to be her lifeless body, but she was already at the other end of the house, pursuing her prey.

One of her pastimes was to get the ever-patient Wolfie to open his mouth wide enough so she could stick her head inside.

I  know that he looks ferocious, but it was all her idea. And this is how they looked after she’d finally gotten her wish:

For five years now, she and I have been doing weekly therapy visits at the nursing wing of the retirement community where we live. Bisou’s job is to stare soulfully into the residents’ eyes while they pet her and reminisce about their own long-gone dogs.

The people we visit are usually sitting in recliners or wheel chairs, and because Bisou worries about falling off their lap, I end up kneeling on the floor, holding her up so the resident can reach to pet her. Getting up off the floor has become more and more challenging, so last week, the staff member who accompanies us on our rounds showed up with a small stool for me to sit on. I felt like a medieval queen that day, walking the halls with a page following behind, carrying my seat.

Back home after each visit, Bisou and I fling ourselves down on the bed, physically and emotionally exhausted. We are not what we once were. In my files there is a detailed Advance Directive that I hope will avoid the prolongation of my final days. When Bisou’s time comes, however, she’ll have to rely on me to know when to end her suffering. I hope I’ll be able to serve her well.

Is Bisou my last dog? If she lives an exceptional five more years (Cavaliers, though small, are not a long-lived breed), I will be nearing my ninth decade when she dies. A puppy will be out of the question. Perhaps a tiny dog, one as ancient as I, might do. Or maybe I should content myself with the cat.

Do I want to even think about this stuff? Of course not. But it is the task of this life stage to learn to look unblinkingly at matters that, only a decade ago, seemed abstract and far away. To reflect about death, my own and the dog’s, and then take her with me into the shadowy woods, hoping for a glimpse of the fox--that is the work that occupies me these days.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Boys in my Class


 For all my writing about the drama of starting high school without knowing English, you’d think that there would be some trace of that in the journal that I kept at the time. But if you read that journal, which I wrote in Spanish, you would never know that my English was anything less than perfect.

I did not write about my anguish when I had to diagram a sentence, or when the P.A.’s garbled announcements came on, or when I didn’t understand a test question. Nor did I write about my constant worry that my deficiencies would become apparent to my teachers, and I’d be cast into the outer darkness.

What did I write about in my journal? I wrote about boys.

Landing in Birmingham in late 1958, learning English, figuring out the school rules, trying to fit into a culture that was both alien and compelling—none of these challenges held a candle to the real shocker: there were boys in my class.

And not just in my class. The whole school was overrun with them--boys by the dozen, in the chapel, the stairwells, the gym. Boys in crew cuts, jostling each other in the halls, dropping books and slamming doors, stretching out their long legs under the desks. Boys with voices that switched unpredictably from bass to soprano. Boys who looked like men, and boys who looked like little kids.

Until 9th grade, I‘d hardly ever spoken to a male my age. I was the only child on both sides of the family, and in my German nuns’ school the only man was an ancient Augustinian friar with a waist-long white beard who came once a week to hear our confessions. My school in Quito was also boy-free, with the exception of the ones from the Jesuit school who would follow our school bus on its rounds, shouting and gunning the engines of their motorcycles.

In my all-female schools, the smartest kid in the class was always a girl, as were the troublemaker, the shy one, and the mean one. When the teacher asked a question, whoever knew the answer raised her hand, without a second thought. If somebody made a mistake, no one hesitated before correcting her. The best mathematician, the fastest runner, and the daintiest embroiderer were all girls.

But now here I was in a class overflowing—they took up so much more space than girls—with boys. As with most aspects of life in America, I found them fascinating as well as terrifying. How was I supposed to behave around these odd beings? On the rare occasions when one of them addressed me my scant English would desert me, and I would stare and stammer until he turned and walked away.

I watched the other girls for hints of how to act. The more popular ones, the ones who got phone calls from boys and went out on real dates, seemed to smile and giggle a lot, and they didn’t speak up much in class.

The giggling and smiling disconcerted me. I hadn’t had any experience with boys, but I’d read a few 19th century Spanish novels, in which the lady was always indifferent to the hero’s passion, which paradoxically made him desire her even more desperately. So imbued was I with this principle of female behavior, that whenever a boy showed the slightest interest in me--no matter that I would have given ten years of my life for a date or a mere phone call from him--I would instantly quash it with my severe looks.

My 19th century tactics didn’t work with American boys, who were accustomed to positive, or at least intermittent, reinforcement from girls. My outmoded notions, combined with my general awkwardness, put them off, and they mostly ignored me except to make fun of my, to them, unpronounceable name.

But there was another factor behind my lack of success with the opposite sex that took me a long time to figure out. As a result of eight years of all-female education, I didn’t realize that certain ways of acting in class might repel my male classmates. Blithely unaware of the appropriate modes of feminine behavior, once my English improved, if I knew the answer to a question I never hesitated to raise my hand. Even worse, it didn’t occur to me to hold back from contradicting something a boy had just said. In those moments, I was more interested in impressing the teacher than in inspiring love.

So I spent those early years sitting at home by the silent phone, writing feverishly in my journal about which boy had said hi to me in the hallway, and which boy had kicked my desk in a meaningful way during Religion class. It is a wonder that I managed to learn anything—how to speak English, or how to write a term paper, or the five proofs of the existence of God—with boys all over the place.

Sadly, these days I periodically hear from former classmates that one or another of those boys has died. And when I learn of such a death, I mourn not the balding patriarch of a loving family, but the long-legged, mysteriously alluring teenager eternally barging through the school halls of my mind.



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

My Mother and the Can of Crisco


During our years in Quito, my mother learned to shop in the open-air markets where Indian women, wearing long braids and black fedoras, layers of petticoats, and, usually, a baby on their back, squatted on the sidewalk. On the ground in front of them lay the produce of the high Andes: mounds of potatoes, piles of onions and corn, and slabs of meat. It was all very real and natural, and crawling with flies.

Her first encounter with an American supermarket was, therefore, a shock.  Everything she could want—from food to cleaning products--was in one pristine, air-conditioned place, all of it canned or neatly wrapped in plastic or cellophane.

One aisle had a surprising array of toilet papers--some strong, some soft, and all in gentle pastels. This was not what my mother was used to: in Spain, the only brand had been a no-nonsense brown, with a picture of an elephant uprooting a tree on the wrapping, while in Ecuador public bathrooms were invariably stocked with squares of newspaper. She was especially taken with the selection of paper napkins, also in many colors. “So hygienic!” she said. “You can have a fresh one at each meal.”

After four years in Quito, where she had to buy her chickens on the hoof and boil every drop of the water and milk we drank, my mother was understandably fascinated with the prospect of ready-to-eat meals. And she wasn’t alone. In that innocent and trusting age, American women cheerfully filled their grocery carts with canned vegetables, meats, and desserts. Here were convenience, nutrition, and endless freshness, and all you needed was a can opener. What was not to like?

The problem for us was figuring out what was inside the cans. The pictures on the labels weren’t always helpful. What, for instance, was that pink cube called Spam? What were those squishy cylinders called marshmallows? The tuna cans had pictures of fish on the label, but as a good Mediterranean my mother wouldn’t think of buying fish that wasn’t practically still wiggling.

We wandered the aisles, feeling increasingly frustrated, when I spotted something that might do. “Look,” I said, “it says Chili Con Carne! Whatever chili is, it has meat. It’s probably o.k.” My mother put the can in her cart and we walked on.

Then, when we were about to give up and leave with an almost empty cart, my mother held up an enormous blue and white can. It had pictures of delicious foods on the label—chicken legs coated in crisp batter, and biscuits, cookies, and slices of pie. Surely, my mother thought, this was the ultimate expression of American practicality: an entire meal in a single can. We bought a can opener and headed home for our first American dinner.

In the kitchen, my mother emptied the chili into a frying pan. “What are all these beans doing mixed with the meat? Your father won’t be too happy,” she said. My father and his family had starved during the Spanish Civil War, and one day he and his brother had managed to steal a huge sack of dried beans, which the family ate for months. Beans were one of the few foods that my father objected to.

As the chili heated, my mother took a taste. “Mare de Déu!” she exclaimed. “This is awful. Here,try it.” I did, and spat it into the sink. The harsh flavor of chili, spicy and bitter, stuck to the back of my tongue.

“Maybe if we eat it with bread,” my mother said, opening a loaf of Wonder Bread and handing my father and me each a slice. But that soft, pliable, crustless square was unlike any bread we’d ever seen. My father took a bite and closed his eyes, chewing. “I feel like I’m eating a piece of towel,” he said.

Our first American meal wasn’t turning into a success. “Well, we can’t eat this. Let’s try the other can,” my mother said, guiltily scraping the chili into the trash.

It took her a while to work the opener all the way around the top, and when she lifted it she said “What is this? Come look!” My father and I ran into the kitchen. The can was filled to the rim with a solid white mass.

“Maybe the food is hidden underneath” my father suggested.

My mother got a wooden spoon and carefully, not wishing to disturb the fried chicken and biscuits and desserts, dug out a bit of the white goo. But there was more goo under that, so she kept digging and digging until finally it became clear that the chicken, etc. on the label had been a lie designed to entice people to buy a six-pound can of that weird white substance.

“It’s some kind of grease,” she said, rubbing a bit of the stuff between index and thumb. “What can Americans possibly do with it?”

My mother dined out on the Crisco story for years. I found it embarrassing and humiliating, and would leave the room whenever she told it. In a way, the Crisco episode mimicked my experience of the American dream: promises of abundant delights as shown in the movies and TV that, upon closer examination, revealed a strange and impenetrable mystery.



Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Lipstick Wars


In the late 1950s, in my Catholic school in Birmingham, Alabama, girls wore their hair short, their skirts long and tight, and their lips coated with dark red lipstick.

I was o.k. on the hair and skirt fronts, and I even had a little orange scarf that tied around my neck, like everybody else. But none of this meant anything if my lips were bare. Lipstick was the magic wand that would camouflage my all-too-obvious foreigness, catapult me into American teenagerhood, and give me a chance of becoming at least slightly popular.

“I’m the only one in the entire school who doesn’t wear lipstick, besides the boys,” I complained to my mother.

“What about the nuns? Do they wear lipstick too?” she said, trying for irony.

 “Is that what you want me to become, a nun?” I answered. “Because that’s what will happen, if you force me to be different from everybody.”

“That’s enough!”my mother said.

I stomped off to my bedroom and sat biting my nails, dreaming of the boys I’d date and the dances I’d dance if only I were allowed to wear lipstick.

I endured ninth grade without lipstick or dates. Then, on my fifteenth birthday, a savior appeared in the form of Miss Harrington. Tall, thin, gray-haired and bespectacled, she was the very image of the spinster school teacher. She even lived with her mother. Miss Harrington taught Spanish at a public school, and she adored my parents, who were the only native Spanish speakers she had ever known.

Miss Harrington knew teenagers, and she understood the drive for affiliation that at that age rivals the sexual urge in intensity. So on October 3rd, 1959 Miss Harrington showed up at our house, made a little speech in front of my parents about what a grown-up young lady I was becoming, and presented me with a tube of Tangee lipstick.

It was a deep red bordering on purple, a color that would make even a fifteen-year-old face look middle-aged. But hey, it was a lipstick, and I could always tame it by blotting. I thanked Miss Harrington, barely restraining myself from kissing her feet in gratitude, and, with a triumphant glance at my mother, ran to the bathroom to try it on.

When Miss Harrington left, my mother pointed at my purplish mouth and said, “Take it off.”

“But Miss Harrington gave it to me. She’s a teacher! She knows Americans, and she doesn’t think I should be different from everybody.”

“And why shouldn’t you be different from everybody? We are not Americans. We are Spaniards, and in Spain little girls don’t wear lipstick.”

Why, you ask, didn’t I simply pretend to throw away the purple lipstick, hide it in my book bag, and put it on the minute I got to school? Because I was a good girl, that’s why, and I believed that obedience to my parents was second only to obedience to God.

But nothing said that I had to obey gladly, and as I fumed and ground my teeth, I had an idea. My mother’s sister was a teacher in the German nuns’ school I’d attended in Barcelona. She would know what Spanish teenagers were wearing, and, as my aunt, she would have my moral welfare at heart. My mother would, I reasoned, have to abide by her verdict.

So I wrote my aunt a letter begging her to intercede on the lipstick question, and sent it off by airmail. It took a week to get there, and her response another week to arrive, but when it did it contained these magic words: “a bit of pink on the lips would not be unbecoming…”

My mother was sautéing garlic for a sofregit when I ran into the kitchen waving the letter in the air. “A bit of pink’s o.k., she says! She says the girls in her school are wearing it! So now I can too!” But my mother tightened her lips, shook her head, and went back to stirring her sauce.

I was in my forties before I became aware of the deep rivalry that existed between my mother and the elder of her two younger sisters, and to realize that my aunt was the last person on the planet whose advice my mother would have taken on matters concerning me.

That summer, we went to Spain. My mother’s sisters, seeing me shapeless, pimply, and awkward, took me in hand. One bought me a bottle of Depurativo Richilet, a potion designed to purify the blood and get rid of acne. The other sewed me a sleeveless dress, full-skirted and cinched at the waist,that made me feel almost beautiful.

One night, as I was leaving for a party wearing the new dress, my aunts beckoned me into their bedroom and put a tiny smear of pink on my lips. I could barely see it, but I knew it was there by its weird, sticky feel, and I felt glamorous as well as guilty. I was almost out the door when my mother saw me, turned me around, and pointed to the bathroom.

She finally gave in on the lipstick issue when I turned sixteen at the start of eleventh grade. She was forty-two years old and nine months pregnant with her second child, and I suspect that she was too tired to keep up the fight. But my lipstick adventures were not over.

My religion teacher that year was an older Irish priest, Father MacCauley, who taught a cerebral approach based on the theology of Thomas Aquinas. This made us feel grown-up and intellectual, and we would argue in the cafeteria about which was the most convincing of the five proofs of the existence of God, and whether birth control really was a sin against human nature.

In one of his more bizarre lectures, Father Mac announced that, whereas it was man’s essence to be rational, women were by nature incapable of rational action. (How he got away with such pronouncements when the majority of his colleagues were Benedictine nuns I have never understood.) The boys in the class hooted with delight when they heard this, but at the end of the hour we girls got together and formed a compact: we would come to school the next day without wearing lipstick! That would show them!

I don’t remember what effect our bare lips had on Father Mac’s theories, but when we walked into English class, Sister Mary Rose took one look at us and exclaimed “Is something wrong? Y’all look so pale!” A few minutes later, I was called to the office. It was my father on the phone, telling me that the baby had arrived, and it was a girl.

In retrospect, I don’t hold it against my mother for taking a stand on the lipstick question. Who among us parents hasn’t on occasion put our foot down unnecessarily?

What I do object to is her holding me hostage to her own issues as an immigrant. It was very well for her, at forty, to emphasize her Spanish identity, which, among other things, made her an exceedingly entertaining dinner guest. At fourteen and fifteen, however, my identity was as fluid as a bowl of unset Jello.

Yes, I was proud of being Spanish, and I enjoyed the attention that being the only foreign student in the school occasionally got me. But I also intuited, in a nebulous way, that clinging to my foreignness would never get me invitations to sleepovers, or that holy grail of adolescence, a date to the prom. The exotic—unless it’s carried by someone far bolder and more self-assured than I was—doesn’t hold much fascination for teenagers, who generally prefer conformity.

With one foot on either side of the Atlantic, trying to interpret America to my parents while striving to please them in all things, I didn’t have an easy time of it. But I don’t envy my mother her task, either, and I’m certainly glad that I didn’t have to rear my adolescent daughters in a foreign culture. Which is why I can confer on my now-deceased mother the absolution that compassionate adults sooner or later bestow on their parents: “She did the best she could.”



Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Words, Words, Words


Remember “surreal”? People used to say it all the time, mostly in situations that had nothing to do with limp watches or dreamlike events.

 “The service here is so slow, it’s surreal!”

Now you hardly ever hear “surreal” anymore. It’s been replaced by “iconic,” which again is used in ways that have nothing to do with those gilded Russian angels, saints and madonnas painted on wood.

According to the dictionary, an icon, in the figurative sense, is “a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.” So a map is an icon of sorts, because it stands for and in fact resembles a geographic region.

Also in a figurative sense, an icon is a person who is especially revered or adored: Lady Gaga is a pop music icon. If you try, you can imagine her with a spiritual look in her eye and a veil on her head, its folds rigid and symmetrical, the whole framed in gold and illumined by flickering candles.

It is in this sense that “icon” and “iconic” are now being used ad nauseam. And it’s not just people who are iconic: Secretariat was an iconic horse, Rin Tin Tin an iconic German Shepherd. Recently I even heard someone on public radio refer to something as “an iconic moment,” which stretches figurativeness farther than I can follow. (I usually refer to NPR as such an icon of media excellence that I’m allowed a tiny criticism here.)

It’s not so much that I object to the meaning of a word expanding to designate objects it didn’t originally refer to. I object to the overuse that dilutes and enfeebles it and turns it into a minor irritant, like a finger poking an old bruise. My spouse encourages me to become more tolerant, but I guess I’m just an icon of linguistic hypersensitivity.

And then there’s “awesome,” as in “Would you like ketchup with your fries?”

“Yes, please.”

“Awesome.”

Really? I thought that “awesome” might describe Moses’ experience conversing with God on Mount Sinai, or the feeling one gets standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon—reverence mixed with admiration and a dash of fear. But no.

“I’ll pick you up at five, then.”

“Awesome.”

Patience, according to Saint Teresa, obtains all things, so if I can grit my teeth a while longer, “iconic” and “awesome” will probably go the way of “surreal.” There is one word, however, whose figurative use will likely go on and on, because it can mean almost anything that the speaker likes: cool.

At first I thought that my generation had invented it. Then I remembered “cool jazz,” the calm, restrained jazz style of the late 1940s. Some believe that originally it referred to the behavior of African slaves, who had to conceal their anger beneath a veneer of detachment.

Which is better, I wonder, “cool” or “awesome”? Whom would you rather marry, who would be more likely to treat you well and stick by you in the long term-- someone cool or someone awesome? Awesomeness is warmer, which might make it the more desirable trait in a spouse.

Which reminds me that, contrary to logic, “hot” is also a positive trait, though a partner who once incarnated hotness may become more cool (and not in a good way) over time.

Isn’t language surreal?



Friday, June 28, 2019

No More Spanish, por favor!

I was in a state of dread watching the second Democratic debate last night, fearing that the candidates would feel obliged to follow in the steps of Beto O'Rourke and Cory Booker the night before, and break into Spanish.

On the first night, when those two stammered their few ungrammatical, mostly incomprehensible sentences in the language of Cervantes, I cringed. And then I got angry. Did Booker and O'Rourke really think that the Hispanic population would be so swept away by hearing them mumble a couple of sentences in Spanish that they would forget to examine the candidates' records and their policies? How much more patronizing can you get?

Julián Castro also said a few things in Spanish, but they came more naturally to him, by reason of his heritage. Nevertheless, I find the habit of larding speeches with foreign sentences in order to manipulate the emotions of a certain population silly at best--sort of like a male candidate attempting to capture the women's vote by dressing in drag.

Language is a powerful thing. When I hear on the news the voices of captive immigrant children crying mamá! papá! it brings tears to my eyes, because those are the names I called my parents as a child. I remember myself newly arrived in the U.S., and I imagine being separated from them. But when I hear Spanish badly used for political effect, I don't feel flattered or included. I feel insulted.

Still, this is a crucial moment in politics, and I am pragmatic enough to recognize that a candidate may have to resort to less than pristine tactics in order to win. So I suggest that, with the use of Spanish, brevity is best, as when Julián Castro wrapped up his remarks by promising that, on January 20, 2021, we will say adiós to Donald Trump.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Corsetiere


When I was around twelve years old, my brain was still firmly anchored in the clear waters of childhood, but the winds of puberty were blowing my body towards the foreign shores of womanhood. I had the mind and manner of a child in the body of a woman, which means that I looked odd at best, and slightly mentally retarded at worst. Braids and breasts, acne and hairy legs—that was me on the threshold of adolescence.

My mother, not sure what to do about this phenomenon that was unfolding in her midst, decided that what I needed was a girdle. But we were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply go to a store and buy a girdle. Everything had to be made by hand.

Fortunately, there lived in the old part of town, between a gilded baroque church and the market where Indian women squatted on the sidewalk, selling meat and vegetables, a corsetière. She was a middle-aged Jewish lady from somewhere in central Europe, one of the many who had fled the Nazis to South America. She looked formidable to me, with her gray hair in a bun, her sturdy lace-up shoes and that tightly corseted, moving-from-the-hips look that you never see in older women anymore.

She had me take off my skirt and, mumbling and clucking to herself in a language I didn’t understand, took my measurements. Several weeks later, the girdle was ready. It was a pink satin construction with bands of flesh-colored, rubbery fabric. It encased me from about three inches above the waist to mid-thigh, and when I tried it on I felt that I would never breathe, let alone walk again.

 “It’s too tight,” I complained.

“You wish to be beautiful, yes?” the corsetière asked me. I nodded. “Then you must suffer,” she said, tugging the girdle in place and winking at my mother.

From time immemorial, garments intended to compress the female form were stiffened with whalebone, or baleen, the strong, pliable strips of keratin in a whale’s mouth that filter krill out of the water. My corsetière, being modern, had foregone baleen in favor of two narrow, flat, flexible metal shafts that ran the length of the girdle, on either side of my abdomen. They were concealed by a strip of closely stitched pink fabric, so I didn’t know they were there, though I noticed that when I peeled off the garment it resisted folding and would spring back at me, like something alive.

I was disappointed in the girdle. The corsetière had not attached garters, since my mother thought I was too young for stockings, and without stockings to help keep it in place, it tended to ride up as I climbed the tree in our backyard, or ran up the stairs. Absent stockings, the girdle’s value as an emblem of adulthood was zero, since nobody could tell I was wearing it.

The girdle also made me very, very hot. Years later, in preparation for marriage, my future mother in law gave me Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, in which, along with instructions on table settings and “the art of tipping,” I read that a proper lady should change her girdle at least twice a day. By then it was the 1960s, and landfills across the land were overflowing with the discarded girdles of my generation, but remembering how much I’d sweated in that old girdle, I could see Amy V’s point.

Much to my relief, my first girdle did not last. Sitting in the backseat of our old Dodge one day, I bent to tie my shoelace and felt a sudden sharp stab into the soft flesh of my belly. I screamed.  My mother twisted around from the front seat “What? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I think something bit me. Something big,” I said. Ecuador abounded in large, appalling-looking bugs, and I lived in fear of them.

My father pulled over to the side of the road and my mother got out. She unbuttoned the waistband of my skirt, pulled up my blouse, rolled down the top of my girdle and discovered the cause of the pain: one of the metal stays had broken, pierced the fabric casing, and stabbed me in the abdomen. On the way home, I had to stretch out on the back seat and lie still, because whenever I sat up the girdle would stab me all over again.

Later, my mother tried to mend the tear, but the stay kept poking through, and she finally relented and let me throw the girdle away. But in later years, whenever I underwent discomfort for the sake of looking good—burning my neck with a curling iron, say, or squeezing into too-tight jeans--I would recall the fateful words of my corsetière, “You wish to be beautiful, yes? Then you must suffer.”


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pearls


I’m pretty much o.k. with looking my age, whatever that means. I don’t dye my hair or have bits of my anatomy surgically lifted, but I do try, whenever possible, to avoid decking myself out in the emblems of past eras, such as bubble hairdos, pillbox hats, and cadaverously pale lipstick.

In the mid-twentieth century, as we girls reached puberty we were given a series of objects that marked our progress towards womanhood: first pair of heels, first girdle, first razor, first strand of pearls. The pearls—real, cultured, or artificial-- were usually gifts from parents or grandparents, a single strand to encircle our youthful necks on special occasions.

My generation didn’t get much use out of our pearls. By the mid-sixties, “serious” jewelry had given way to ethnic and artisanal adornments. We wore chandelier-like earrings that hung down to our clavicles, paper mache bracelets, and bizarre beads and amulets in lieu of pearls.

I still have my pearls. They sleep in a box, wrapped like mummies in a lace doily crocheted by my father’s mother. Sometimes I take them out and look at them. Almost certainly man-made, the pearls are a mellow ivory color, and they have kept their looks over the decades, without peeling or losing their luster. They feel heavy in my hand and, on the rare occasions when I put them on, pleasantly cool on my skin.

I like pearls. They go with everything. They are almost alive, “breathing” air and moisture and changing color with the years and the wearer’s chemistry. The better kind of artificial pearls get their luster from a concoction of fish scales slathered on a glass sphere, so they react to their environment in much the same way as their oyster-made cousins.

In Colette’s novel, Chéri, the courtesan Léa wears her magnificent “rope” of rosy pearls to bed with her lover. If I lived on a desert island, I too would wear my little strand round the clock. But I live in Vermont, where, for good reason, the atmosphere is ultra casual. It’s hard to dress in fancy clothes when you’re trudging through snow drifts in winter and deep mud in spring. In the all-too-short summer, Vermonters are frantically growing veggies in their gardens, and can’t be bothered to dress up.

The Green Mountain State, however, is nothing if not accepting of quirks and fancies of all kinds. You can wear an organza shift with your rubber boots to town meeting and nobody will bat an eye, so why don’t I wear my pearls? Sheer vanity is why. I’m afraid that they might be one of those markers of bygone eras, like the teased hair of the sixties or the pillow-sized shoulder pads of the eighties, that will telegraph my elderly status before I’ve had a chance to impress my audience with how relatively non-elderly I am.

It’s vanity on the same spectrum as hair rinses and eyelid tweaks. But at least the people who undergo these procedures are exchanging something they don’t like (gray hair and droopy eyelids) for something that they like better. I, on the other hand, am denying myself something I enjoy in order to avoid looking like Queen Elizabeth.

Given what I’ve seen on TV in recent weeks, however, looking like the Queen, who wears her near-century with pride, would be infinitely preferable to looking like my fellow septuagenarian, the man with the orange face.

Senior prom, 1962

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Ten Thousand Steps


For years we have heard that taking ten thousand steps every day will make you healthier. And you don't need special clothing, footwear, or equipment. You can do your walking barefoot or in three-inch heels, in shorts or bespoke suits, up a mountain or in your kitchen. The principle has a pleasing Japanese-style simplicity about it, like those exquisite, barely-there flower arrangements. If I bring up Japan, it's because that is where the 10,000-step movement began.

It's a part of my "shadow self" that I can't seem to shake, the tendency to glom onto goals, regardless of their worth. Ten thousand steps--is there a number more absolute, majestic and compelling than that slender digit trailing four plump zeroes? Who could resist it? Not I.

But for a long time I couldn't find a pedometer (did I mention that you need a pedometer?) that counted steps accurately. Then recently I heard about a new generation of battery-powered gizmos that were supposed to do the job. I bought one, measured my stride as instructed, told it my height and weight, and clipped it to my waistband. Then I took Bisou for a walk.

I had no idea what I would find when I checked the count at bedtime. Would the day's harvest yield five hundred or five thousand steps? As it turned out, it was the latter. Not bad, for a baseline, but I was only halfway to my goal.

For the next couple of days I took Bisou for longer walks. In the evening, while watching TV, I set a kitchen timer for twenty-five minute periods, and each time it rang I got up and walked three times around the room. Every night the number on my pedometer grew. On Friday, it showed eight thousand steps.  On Saturday, I did it again.

On Sunday, I couldn't get out of bed.

On Monday, I was hobbling stiff-kneed around the kitchen when I heard a story on NPR that was sent to me personally by the universe. It turns out that the goal of 10,000 steps is not based on any kind of scientific evidence. It was promulgated in Japan decades ago by a pedometer manufacturer who wanted to sell more pedometers.

Now, a study of 17,000 women of a certain age shows that walking a mere 4,400 steps a day had a beneficial effect on the women's longevity. Some ambitious participants walked more, but after 7,500 steps there were no additional effects on longevity (possibly because their painful knees drove them to suicide).

Since hearing that story, I have abandoned my obsession with the 10,000 steps. I am not abandoning my pedometer, however, even though the numbers 4,400 or even 7,500 don’t have the same appeal. I have settled for a measly five thousand steps a day. My knees are already thanking me.

And when the next fitness craze hits, whether it be daily push-ups, jumping jacks, or handstands, I will strive to keep in mind the common sense views of my mother, who lived into her nineties without the aid of canes, walkers, joint replacements, or NSAIDs. She walked every day, making circuits inside the house when the weather was bad, but only for as long as she enjoyed it. 

She would have laughed at my pedometer. "Why do you need a little machine," I can hear her saying, "to tell you when you've had enough?"




Wednesday, June 5, 2019

My Fox Fantasy


This spring I've been running a fox restaurant in the backyard. I feed the birds, who drop the seeds that feed the squirrels, who are then eaten by my fox.  Given his dedication to hunting, I assume he's a male, working hard to feed his wife and children.

It is not easy to watch Nature doing its red-in-tooth-and-claw thing right outside my door. The squirrels, grown fat on a diet of oil-rich sunflower seeds and berry-studded suet, make a slow-moving prey for the fox, and a calorie-rich dinner for his family. In the space of three days last week I saw him kill two squirrels and, despite my mixed feelings about the squirrels, I felt sorry as I watched them perish in the fox's narrow jaws.

Until, that is, I saw him limping as he carried off the body. Then I felt sorry for the fox.

He's a good-looking red fox with a luxurious white-tipped tail and black-stockinged legs. What caused his lameness? Was he hit by a car, or bitten by a squirrel? Is his foot dislocated, infected, or what? Lame or not, he trots across our yard as gracefully as Fred Astaire.

I wish I could shoot him with a tranquilizing dart and take him to the vet, but my little dog, Bisou, harbors no such kind feelings. To her, the fox's presence in our yard is an outrage, and she barks explosively every time she sees him run past. She barks explosively even when the fox is not in the yard, putting her nose on the ground and sniffing until I drag her back inside. Yesterday I bent down to investigate a spot that she was glued to, and found two clumps of squirrel fur.

I think about the fox all the time. Looking out the window, I ignore the two kinds of finches, the three kinds of woodpeckers, and even the orioles that a month ago sent me into ecstasies. All I want to see is the fox.

To tell the truth, what I really want is to tame the fox. I want to offer him bits of Bisou's kibble so he'll slowly get used to me and come close enough to let me pet him. And after weeks of patience and perseverance, one day--maybe in the fall, when the leaves are turning and the evenings grow chilly--he will follow me into the house and curl up on the hearth.

This is of course utterly insane, and an inappropriate fantasy for a grown woman. But it's just one in my long list of wildlife fantasies, such as the one about the chipmunks that come to drink at my birdbath, so neat and trim that they look as if they've been drawn with a calligraphy pen. How, I wonder, does one tame a chipmunk? One frigid night in the garage I caught a glimpse of an ermine in its bright, white winter coat. As he vanished under the car I was already taking stock of my pantry to see what I could offer him (canned salmon? sardines?) to get him to stick around.

I've been this way for as long as I can remember, and I doubt that I'll ever change. The lonely only child surrounded by a tribe of ever-attentive adults still lives inside me, and craves the presence of a fellow creature who neither praises, corrects, nor instructs, and whose wordless companionship somehow allows me to be fully myself.

So what am I going to do about the fox? Even if by some miracle he were to follow me into the house, he would give Bisou and the cat Telemann, not to mention my spouse, heart attacks. Therefore, I've downgraded to a humbler fantasy, in which the fox and I sit together on the grass and quietly watch a beetle climb up a twig, while the scratchy song of the cicadas thrums in our ears. I can't think of a more perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.






Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Only A Woman

When she was seven, the future Saint Teresa ran away with her brother to seek martyrdom among the Moors in Africa. An uncle found them outside the city walls of Avila and dragged them home. Later, as a Carmelite nun, she crisscrossed Spain on muleback, cleaning up corrupt convents, founding new ones, and doing battle against resistant clerics. And all the while she was writing masterpieces of literature that endure to this day, making friends with that other great mystic and writer, Saint John of the Cross, and having ecstatic visions of God.

Although she'd been dead for four centuries, Teresa's power radiated all the way through the chalk dust in our classrooms and the ink stains in our uniforms."She was a mystic, a writer, a reformer, a theologian, and a doctor of the Church," the teacher told us "even though she was ONLY A WOMAN!"

For us, Teresa was a no-nonsense saint, grown-up and bold, with none of the sickly prettiness of the little virgin martyrs (Lucy, Agnes, Margaret, Cecilia, etc.) whose main merit seemed to consist in their refusal to have sex. In the 1950s, a decade that revered domesticity, and in a culture where virginity, followed by marriage and motherhood, were practically the only options for women, Saint Teresa showed us a different picture of how to be a woman: brave, intelligent, determined, a leader of women and men.

If Teresa of Avila had been the only model held up for our admiration, all would have been well. But in counterpoint to the bold image of the saint we were offered a list of tamer, more "feminine" virtues: we were urged to be patient and humble, and to always think of others before ourselves. Unquestioning obedience was at the top of the list, as was the strictest chastity. "When you go to bed at night," I remember one of my German nuns advising us, "do not let your hands wander all over your body." (Years later, my college roommate said I was the only person she knew who fell asleep with her arms straight at her side, like a corpse in a casket.)

But it was that trio--humility, selflessness, and obedience--that was the most effective at quashing our girlish spirits. How could we nine- and ten-year-olds reconcile those ego-stifling virtues with the drive and assertiveness that Saint Teresa must have possessed in order to achieve all that she did?
It was a dilemma that we were too young to solve, and it caused us much confusion and uncertainty.

It was not altogether bad to have our vision of the indomitable aspects of Saint Teresa's character tempered with the milder virtues. But I shudder to imagine what life would have been like for us girls without the image of the great Saint fighting for justice, writing books, founding convents and monasteries. Years before we heard of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem we had Saint Teresa of Avila, in her sandals and brown habit, riding her mule in all weathers, showing us what a woman could be.






Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Of Birds And Lilies

"Look at the birds of the air," Father Molloy intoned in his Irish brogue. "They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Lord God feeds them." Then he then went on about lilies and King Solomon, and when he had finished reciting he twinkled his blue eyes and said "Class, I want you to memorize this passage by tomorrow." The blood froze in my veins.

At home that evening I got out the New Testament and my paperback Spanish-English dictionary and went to work. I had no idea what the passage was about. I didn't know the meaning of sow, reap, gather, or barns. Then came the part about the lilies, which neither toil nor spin, whatever that was, but even Solomon was not arrayed like one of them. Arrayed--was it a good or a bad thing not to be arrayed like a lily?

And then a few lines further down Jesus said, "Therefore, do not worry..." (Matthew 6:26-34)

How could I not worry, when I had to memorize that long passage by tomorrow and I didn't know most of the words in it? I looked up sow, and reap, and gather. But by the time I got to barns I was confused. I had seen plenty of sowing and reaping in my grandparents' farm in Catalonia, but as far as I knew, the birds of the air were a menace around harvest time. They did not wait for the Lord God to feed them, but helped themselves boldly to the grain.

I ground my teeth and soldiered on, looking up word after word, but when I put them all together, the passage still didn't make sense. And here it was, almost bedtime, and I hadn't even begun to memorize.

"Therefore, do not worry..."

At fourteen, newly arrived in the U.S. and possessed only of the few crumbs of English I'd acquired from a German teacher during my three years in Quito, I worried all the time. I was the first-ever foreign student in a Catholic high school in Birmingham, Alabama, long before the days when English as a second language became an academic subject. I suspect that nobody knew what to do with me.

For my part, my all-consuming goal was to blend in so I could catch my breath and figure out, without letting anyone notice my ignorance, things I'd never encountered before, like homerooms and assemblies and rallies and football games, and to acquire enough English to survive.

My efforts at camouflage must have worked, because from day one my teachers seemed to assume that I was no different from my classmates. I'm sure that if I'd asked for help it would have been given gladly, but I never asked. I believed, given the stern regimes of my schools in Barcelona and later in Quito, that any sign of weakness or ignorance would be pounced upon by the school authorities and I would be cast into the outer darkness, to spend the rest of my days cleaning bathrooms for a living.

If I had only known how comparatively lenient and indulgent American educators were, I would have relaxed, but I didn't know, so I anxiously continued to mask my deficiencies. Arriving home in the afternoon, after a day of straining with every fiber to understand what was going on in class, I would retire to bed with a headache. Later I would get up and, dictionary in hand, try to do my homework.

But on the night of my encounter with the birds and the lilies, I finally realized that the dictionary was in fact hampering my efforts to understand. It was slowing me down, interrupting the flow of ideas so that I was missing the gist of the passage. Besides, there were just too many words I didn't know. It was impossible to look them all up, let alone remember them. I would simply have to figure out the meanings from the context.

With a sigh, I put the dictionary away and never opened it again. Somehow I winged it, lexicon-less, through the rest of school. At college graduation, my husband-to-be presented me with a hardcover Merriam-Webster Collegiate, but by then I hardly needed it.

It's been a late spring in Vermont, and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are busy making up for lost time. The words in the Matthew passage are no longer a mystery to me. But, having learned to fret early on, it's those other words of Jesus that I still struggle with, "Therefore, do not worry...."














Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Not Forest.Trees!

I am married to a man who pays attention to trees. Me, I'm a forest gazer. I stand on a mountain and take in acres of green, stretching all the way to the sea.

In reality, he can barely tell a weeping willow from a sugar maple, and my most interesting forest experience was when I got lost in the woods behind my house. What I'm saying is that my spouse (who can't see the forest for the trees) focuses on the concerns of the moment, whereas I (who can't see the trees for the forest) am forever taking the larger view.

Can you guess which of us is the more serene, contented, and at peace?

Some people are born with a Zen-like instinct for paying attention to the here and now. If I ever had this instinct, it was taken away by the evil fairies at my christening. Since childhood I have embodied that saying of Thich Nhat Hanh's: "I think; therefore, I am not here."

Where am I? I'm on the mountain, staring at the forest, scrutinizing the horizon for threatening hordes, peering among those distracting trees for signs of lions, tigers, and bears. This does not fill me with feelings of security or contentment. Although the view is occasionally neutral, most often it inspires dread: there is too much to do; where do I even start? What if there's a flood, a fire, a war?

Tired of contemplating forests and paying for it with endless hours of unnecessary worry,  I'm trying to break the habit.

As if in answer to my need, the universe, via Google, sent me this from Sir William Osler (1849-1919), revered physician and all around good guy: "Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day."

The little task at my elbow! Who could resist? I don't need to cope with a forest stretching across continents, but with a single tree, perhaps a seedling, in need of water and light. Even I can manage that! And in the process, I can take in Sister Tree in all her uniqueness--the feel of the bark, the angle of the branches, the way the leaves move in the breeze--and let that be sufficient for the day.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Writer, Interrupted

The year my first daughter was born, I wrote my dissertation. I had spent the previous nine months researching and then making an excruciatingly detailed outline of the project. The outline consisted of a complex system of index cards arranged by topics, sub-topics, and sub- sub-topics, each one bound by a rubber band and grouped with others in its category by a larger rubber band.

Having heard that babies could be time consuming, I figured that if I had just fifteen minutes to spare, I could remove the rubber band from a single sub-topic and write a paragraph or two before the next diaper change.

Besides the baby, I had a temporary part-time job teaching in a private school. Thanks to my rubber bands, I nevertheless managed to write all but the last chapter of my dissertation. Since by that point my daughter was no longer nursing every five minutes, my mother came up one weekend and babysat while I went to the library to finish the job.

I found a carrel in a quiet corner, took out the final batch of index cards, snapped off the rubber band and looked around. This being Saturday morning, the stacks were empty. There was no one, not even a mouse, to disturb me. I could concentrate to my heart's content....

Except I couldn't. Somehow I was unable to sustain mental effort for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch. Motherhood had worked a weird kind of interval training on my brain, so that I needed frequent interruptions in order to function.

Despite the weirdness of those two silent days, I did manage to sweat out the last chapter--but, ironically, it was the only one that my advisor asked me to rewrite.

In Silences, her heart-wrenching book about why writers don't write, Tillie Olsen says,"More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, and responsible." These days, fatherhood may in some cases get in the way of writing as well, but it's still mostly motherhood that keeps writers from writing.

No matter how talented the writer, it's hard to produce a masterpiece in fifteen-minute stretches. A middle-class mother may well have a physical room of her own, but where to escape the moral obligation, let alone the inborn desire to satisfy a child's endless need for food, company, stimulation, love?

The German poet Rilke was so leery of the drain that affections impose on a writer that he could not live in the same house with his wife and baby. He couldn't even bear to have a dog: "Anything alive that makes demands, arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up." (Rilke quoted by Olsen, in Silences.)

For me, the days of index cards and rubber bands were followed by decades of further interruptions, by growing children, work, and life in general. But my present schedule is one to make struggling would-be writers faint with envy: I could, if I wanted to, write uninterruptedly from dawn to dusk, every single day.

But not quite. For as soon as the opening fanfare of Windows announces that I've sat down to write, the cat Telemann comes rushing up to investigate. He sits on the desk, rearranges my papers, sniffs  my coffee, and reaches out his white paw to tap on the keyboard (he's been known to delete important stuff). Is he bored, I wonder? Hungry? In need of affection? Poor thing, he never gets to go outside--I should play with him a while.

My little red dog Bisou, less intrusive now than in her youth, is content to sleep in the room while I write--until she starts to wonder when we're going for our walk, or if it's almost dinnertime. She's been with me through thick and thin for the past decade, her entire tiny life. How can I deny her?

My two goldfish and my houseplants are less vocal in their demands, but I can't bear to see them languish. The fish must be fed breakfast and dinner, and the water in their tub changed regularly. The plants need water--not too much--and food and grooming, and carefully placed full-spectrum lights.

Clearly, my brain is still on its old schedule. After fifteen or twenty minutes of writing, it looks around for interruptions. What--no phone calls, no emails, no appointments, nobody at the door? It must be time to walk the dog.

Short of infants of my own, I have hobbled myself with a set of living beings that arouse in me that infinite capacity to give them their due.  Rilke would say I'm committing creative suicide.

And so I walk the dog, and play with the cat, and I try not to beat myself up about it. Fifteen or twenty minutes of writing is better than nothing, after all. Despite his richly emotive poetry, Rilke strikes me as a little cold. Besides, who's to say that a well-loved creature is less precious than a great poem?


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Sister Squirrel

As with most people who feed the birds, my relationship with the gray squirrel oscillates between grudging tolerance and rodenticidal rage. There is no lack of stories about the squirrel's diabolical cleverness in getting at food intended for the birds, so I won't bore you with mine. I'll simply say that when one of these plump uninvited guests goes anywhere near my bird feeders, I grit my teeth in aggravation.

Yet it wasn't always like this. When I first lived in an American suburb, I found the squirrels adorable, with their slanted eyes, monkey-like hands, and those cloud-colored tails that morphed into a question mark the minute they sat still. I thought they were charming and exotic, and I couldn't understand why so many people disliked them.

Now I do. I've been feeding birds and fighting squirrels for longer than we've been at war with Afghanistan, with mixed results. I've been wondering lately if it might not be time to change my attitude. Life's too short for hatred and strife.

The story of Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio comes to mind. There lived in the forests around Gubbio a fierce wolf who killed sheep, shepherds, and any citizen who ventured outside the city walls. One day Francis went in search of the wolf. He found him gnawing on a thigh bone and said, "Brother Wolf, why so much killing?"

"Winter is hard in the forest, Brother Francis," the wolf responded, "and I was hungry."

Francis made a deal with the wolf: if he promised never to harm livestock or people again, he would get the townspeople to feed him so that he would not go hungry. The wolf gave Francis his paw in agreement, and the people of Gubbio and their wolf lived in harmony ever after.

Like the wolf, my squirrels are hungry. Why should I begrudge them a few pounds of sunflower seeds, some measly suet cakes? Why not let them share the banquet that I so prodigally set out for the birds?

Maybe I'm afraid that, if I let the squirrels come to my feeders, more and more of them will arrive--huge invading caravans of squirrels that will drive the birds away and me into bankruptcy. Maybe I should build a wall around my feeders, a really high wall topped with barbed wire. Maybe, just to make sure, my husband and I should take turns standing guard with a pellet gun....

Or maybe I could go and stand beside the feeders and make a speech to the squirrels.

"Little gray Sisters," I would say, "welcome to my backyard. Here are my bird feeders. Here is my birdbath. You are welcome to all the water you can drink, and to the seeds that fall on the ground.

"I would prefer it if you didn't climb onto the feeders and dig out wasteful amounts of seed and suet, but I understand that some of you may not be able to resist the temptation. Whatever. The world is wide enough for your kind and mine and the titmice and chickadees, finches and woodpeckers.

"I will now go inside, take a deep breath, and try to see the beauty and innocence in your agility and determination. Pay no attention to the gray cat batting at you on the other side of the glass. He's never allowed outdoors."

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Despoiling the Amazon

When my parents and I lived in Quito, Ecuador in the 1950s, the Amazon jungle wasn't what it is now: fragile, endangered, dying the death of a thousand cuts. Instead, it was a dangerous, fierce, human-hating place that you had to vanquish, or die.

The Ecuadorian government would sell you hundreds of acres of forest for a few sucres. But only fools took up the offer. One of them, the husband of my math tutor, had accepted the government's deal and was now rotting alive (mosquitoes, amoebas, leeches, niguas that would crawl under your toenails and there expand until the nails fell off), getting drunk and going mad in his hacienda in the sweltering forest east of the Andes. Every night, while he slept exhausted after a day of chopping  paths with his machete, the jungle would stretch green tendrils over the newly-cleared ground, and within a couple of days, the path had vanished.

The only people who could survive in the forest, we were told, were the native tribes--some of which had never been seen by white people--who were forever fighting each other and shrinking the heads of their decapitated enemies.

Nevertheless, my parents and I did occasionally dip our toes in the ocean of green that extended from the eastern slopes of the Andes all the way to the Pacific. And whenever we parked our 1944 Dodge on a village square, the inhabitants would approach, offering samples of the local fauna for us to buy.

For the first trip, however, my parents decided to trust the public transportation system rather than the old Dodge. We rode in a colectivo, a kind of minibus crammed with people and their parcels and  chickens. As soon as we arrived at our destination, a scarlet macaw was thrust into my mother's hands by its eager owner. The bird was the size of a half-grown hen, all head and massive beak and trailing tail feathers. His plumage exuded a curious, acidic smell. He perched on a broom handle, and when jostled uttered blood-curdling shrieks. To us Europeans, accustomed to starlings, sparrows, and the occasional hoopoe, this was the most extraordinary bird we had ever seen.

As for the macaw, the moment he saw my mother he fell passionately in love. All the way back to Quito, as the colectivo bounced on the cobbled Inca roads, whenever we tried to relieve my mother of the bird and the broomstick he would begin his ear-splitting protests, not stopping until he was restored to her.

In Quito, he lived on a perch in the backyard. Whenever my mother came out the kitchen door he would flutter down from his perch, waddle over to her, and rub his head against her leg, his eyes half-closed in ecstasy. He never had much use for the rest of us. He lived for a good while, and then we found him one morning, dead of a chill, or of longing for his native jungle, or of unrequited passion for my mother.

On another trip to the Amazon we ended up with a pair of toucans in a cage made of twigs. They were very young and obviously sick, and they barely made it back to Quito before expiring. They were succeeded by a sloth, who was so disconcertingly slow-moving that one day we concluded he was dead. My father drove him to a taxidermist to be stuffed but, just in time, the sloth blinked and languidly extended one long arm, and was reprieved.

At about this time the second violinist of my father's quartet was given a meltingly adorable ocelot kitten, all broad paws and wide eyes. Since the three single members of the quartet shared a house with my parents and me, I was sometimes allowed to pet Pepita, who all too soon morphed into an intractable dragon, spitting and clawing at whomever approached her. At one point she contracted an infection, and it took the entire quartet to hold her down (taking care not to injure their musician's hands) and administer the sulfa drugs that the vet had prescribed.

The final, most extraordinary acquisition was a marmoset. We had just arrived in the then small village of Puyo and were standing in the perennial tropical drizzle when a man approached and said, pointing to a woman behind him, "I have an animal for you." My parents, in the course of our travels through those impoverished regions, had occasionally been offered children, and they thought for an alarming moment that he was referring to the woman. But when she lifted her long, black hair we saw, perched on her shoulder, a tiny monkey the size of my hand.

I was so instantly besotted that I couldn't utter a sound. My father looked at me, handed the man some coins and, wonder of wonders, the little monkey was mine.

In the jungle between Puyo and Baños, February, 1956 
Back in Quito, the marmoset turned our house into her personal amusement park, swinging from coat to coat in the hall closet, detaching with great effort the inner soles from our shoes, undoing my shoelaces as I sat doing my homework, and stealing pencils which she would heft over her shoulder and hide in a corner. At mealtimes, she would hold a single banana slice with both hands like a hamburger and munch away. When the sun went down she would snuggle under my sweater, uttering soft, bird-like twitters. At night she slept next to me on a doll bed, inside a sheepskin bag that my mother had made for her.

She lived with us for two years and then, one day while my mother and I were at home, she fell into the toilet and drowned before we could rescue her. Her death left me as bereft as if I had lost a sibling.

Often at night I think about that trail of little dead bodies that we left behind during our years in Ecuador. What were we thinking? The fact is, we weren't. Or not in the way that we now think about animals. We fed them and housed them and gave them rudimentary veterinary care. But we didn't think about their needs as truly sentient beings, capable, like us, of missing the companionship of their own species, of languishing for lack of freedom, of perishing of nostalgia for home.

Except for some breeds of marmoset, all our former pets are now on the endangered species list. By 2030, if the present rate of deforestation continues, more than a quarter of their jungle will be lost to logging, mining and oil drilling. If you think of the planet as a living, breathing organism, the desecration of the Amazon will be equivalent to cutting off half of one of its lungs.

The macaws, toucans, sloths, ocelots, and marmosets will die, not one by one like they did at our house, but by the millions. And when all the green has turned to brown, we will know that the human race has finally vanquished the Amazon.