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.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Why Concerts Make Me Sad

When my father died of lung cancer at fifty-three, his death wrenched me out of the ocean of music that I'd been swimming in since infancy. Even as a toddler, I was so immersed in his music that my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the third movement of the Beethoven violin concerto, which my father was preparing to perform.

I spent a major part of my childhood attending--more like being dragged to--concerts. Sunday mornings, in Barcelona, my mother would take me to Mass, and then to the symphony concert in the Palau de la música catalana. There, in the hallucinatory Art Nouveau hall, swinging my legs, which were too short to reach the floor, I would sit through endless programs. Once I'd located my father in the violin section, I would entertain myself by gazing at the plaster busts of long-haired muses that emerged out of the wall behind the orchestra.

When the Ecuadorian government imported a quartet of Catalan players to Quito, with my father as first violin, we all--the second violinist, the violist, the cellist, my parents and I--shared a house so the quartet could spend mornings practicing for their bi-weekly performances, which I was required to attend. At twelve years old, even though by then my feet did reach the floor, a late Beethoven quartet seemed to last an eternity.

By the time we came to the U.S. I was in high school, and had been playing the violin for several years. By sheer dint of exposure, I was finding it easier to sit through and even enjoy my father's symphony concerts, and his chamber music and solo performances.

Then, as I was finally maturing musically, my father died, and I stopped going to concerts. Half a century later, I still find it painful to attend live performances. As a result, over the years I have missed a lot of good music. In Vermont, there is a vibrant musical community, and magnificent players regularly spill out of New York looking for venues, but it's all wasted on me. I can enjoy listening to music on the car radio, or on CDs in my living room. But live performances bring tears to my eyes, and so I avoid them.

Why, I've been wondering, shouldn't I get the same joy out of going to concerts as so many of my friends do? What is it about live performances that plunges me back into a state of mourning, as if my father had just died? Why can I listen to music in my car but not in a concert hall?

And then it came to me. There is one sound that is never heard on a recorded piece, but that you always hear whenever a string player picks up his or her instrument, whether preparing to practice scales or to perform at Carnegie Hall: the sound of tuning up.

For the violin, it starts with the two highest strings, A and E, played together, then A and D, and finally D and G, the tones growing sharper or flatter with each turn of the pegs, the adjustments finer and finer until the three perfect fifths are reached.

Together with my parents' voices, the sound of a violin being tuned, that homely wah-wah without which no music can begin, was one of the first vibrations to reach me as I swam in my mother's womb. So that, to this day, hearing the search for those perfect fifths immerses me in my father's presence: his hyper-flexible, tobacco-stained fingers, the circular sore on his left jaw from too many hours of playing, the aroma of cigarettes that enveloped him.

But if I open my eyes and see someone else tuning the strings, my father is suddenly wrenched away from me, replaced by a stranger who may well be a better violinist than he was, but is not him. And I am plunged into mourning once again.

If for me my father's persona was inextricably identified with music, it's little wonder that music, which like smell bypasses the obtrusive medium of language, can bring him back so vividly. And just as vividly--since it's no longer him playing, nor will ever be--snatch him away. I don't suppose that there's much I can do to alter this, nor at this stage do I really want to. I simply accept it as a fair price for all the years that I spent floating in the warm currents of my father's music.

My father (mustache, violin) and the Catalan quartet in Quito, 1955

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Meditation Blues

It was the start of the new millennium, and I was in my first yoga class. The teacher kept saying things like "focus on the breath!" "relax your muscles!" "clear your mind!" What was she talking about? In those days the slightest attention to my breath instantly caused me to clench my diaphragm, which would in turn plunge me into a frenzy of analysis about my failure to achieve a meditative state.

Twenty years of semi-faithful meditation practice later, what do I have to show for my efforts?

I have gotten better at sitting in half-lotus, but as for clearing my head, let alone "going into a deep place," pshaw! The problem is my monkey mind, the Buddhists' term for the mind's tendency to flit from topic to topic like a troop of monkeys leaping through the forest.

When I started meditating all those years ago, the monkeys in my mind were an adolescent troop, erupting out of nowhere as soon as I sat down on my cushion. They had long, agile bodies covered in tawny fur, and cunning little white faces. They swung by their long tails. They chittered and screeched and fought over the fruits hanging from the branches of the trees inside my brain. If they ever slept, they only did so when I wasn't meditating.

Give them time, I said to myself, they'll settle down. They can't possibly keep this up.

And sure enough, over the years, the monkeys matured and slowed down a tiny bit...but then they started having babies. So now I have the original troop, endlessly squabbling over dominance and mating hierarchies, plus their spoiled, demanding offspring, who are forever wandering off and getting into trouble, stealing food, and screaming for attention.

If my meditating brain started out as a tree inhabited by a single troop, it has now become one of those ruined Indian temples in the jungle that are home to an entire nation of monkeys.

I know what the Buddhists would say: don't fight the monkeys--just watch them swing by, and gently let them go. So I try to sit patiently while the monkeys do their thing, not judging them, pretending that I'm watching a National Geographic special on TV.

Will my monkeys ever vanish? Will they at least calm down? I'm not counting on it. But occasionally a couple of them settle down on a crumbling stone wall and briefly groom each other. The chaos then subsides, and I feel myself breathe.




Wednesday, April 3, 2019

My Cat, Master of Intermittent Reinforcement

All my life, in my loves and in my friendships, I have preferred a reliable stream of constant affection to sudden passionate outpourings followed by unpredictable periods of silent withdrawal.

So why, you ask, do I have a cat?

My little red dog, Bisou, provides the constancy. Whether I'm happy, sad, bored, or impatient, she's right there, next to me, quietly waiting for my next move. On the other hand,Telemann, the gray cat, treats me in ways that I would never tolerate in a member of my own species.

Take, for example, nap time. When they see me put the special siesta afghan on the bed in the afternoon, Telemann and Bisou come running. I lie down, pull the blanket up to my shoulders, and Bisou subsides by my right leg.

But now where is Telemann? He's on the windowsill, looking at the clouds as if he's never seen them before.

I really want him to get settled before I doze off, because it's upsetting to be awakened by eleven pounds of cat landing on my chest like an asteroid crashing into Siberia. So I call him, using my best coloratura tones, and if I'm lucky he comes to the bed. He clomps around on my torso, digging his adorable white paws into my ribs until things feel just right, and then curls like a skein of alpaca wool on top of my diaphragm and slowly, slowly closes his eyes.

As long as I lie like a stone effigy on a tomb, all is well. But what if I have to answer the phone, or get a drink of water, or add something I just remembered to my to-do list? No matter how gently I try to slither out from under the afghan, Telemann gives me an offended glare--how COULD you do this to ME!--and departs for the bathroom rug, which is soft and fluffy and (since the bathroom floor is heated) warmer than I. Plus, unlike me, it can be counted on to stay put.

Every time this happens, and it happens a lot, I feel a little hurt, and embarrassed that I feel hurt. For crying out loud, he's just a cat.What do I expect? If he's annoyed at me, and he must be, because I haven't seen him for a while now, I can respond with cool indifference. I'm certainly not going to go looking for him and make amends. He can darn well make the first move.

In the evening, I'm lying on the sofa reading when Wham! Telemann lands on me, all slitty-eyed and  purring like an eighteen wheeler at a truck stop. And it's o.k. I'll forgive him. After all, I'm the human here. I will lie quietly and let him have his pre-bedtime nap.

But now it seems that he's not in the mood for a nap. He's in the mood for putting his cold wet nose against mine and patting my cheek with that damned little white paw, and turning around and around with his tail high and his rosy derrière two inches from my nose. And there's nothing for it but he must settle not on my belly or my diaphragm or my chest, but on my neck, right between me and my book.

Reader, I let him. What can I do? That cat literally walks all over me--such is the power of intermittent reinforcement, a skill that he mastered in infancy. Like some character out of Dangerous Liaisons, Telemann figured out that, to make a human your love slave, all you have to do is run emotionally hot and cold, overwhelming your victim with passion one moment and turning away disdainfully the next. If you never give affection, the victim loses interest. If, on the other hand, you are constant and reliable, she takes you for granted and may even gain the upper hand in the relationship.

For a cat, that would be the ultimate disgrace, and Telemann is not about to let it happen in our house. So we hobble along, he and I, squabbling and reconciling. I don't know where this relationship is headed. I'm certainly not the one in control here. All I can say is, thank heaven for Bisou's quiet reliability. Which leads me to this bit of advice for those who are thinking of getting a cat: go ahead and get one, but, if you want to retain your sanity, get a dog as well.

 


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Be a Balm

Often, when I write, a feeling of futility washes over me. What is the use, I think, of sitting here day after day, sifting through adjectives and tweaking clauses and worrying about semicolons. Does the world really need yet another paragraph from me?

Wouldn't it be better, instead, to volunteer at the food bank or join demonstrations for worthy causes? I could be feeding dogs and cleaning cat cages at the Humane Society, or interpreting for the workers from Latin America who milk the cows of Vermont farmers. Instead, I fiddle with words while the world around me burns and/or floods and generally careens toward Armageddon.

I imagine that it's not just writers who agonize about this. Musicians probably worry about the relevance of spending hours to perfect a single trill, and painters accuse themselves of triviality for obsessing about different shades of ochre. And even people who don't work in the arts--housewives/husbands, accountants, or taxi drivers, anyone not directly involved with saving children or animals or the planet--probably ask themselves the same question.

I recently got some consolation from writer and photographer Teju Cole. In an interview in On Being he said: "Even if I'm writing about something very dark, to take it through eight drafts, to take it through ten drafts is an act of hope, because you're saying, even in this moment, a well-shaped sentence matters [...] Somebody could say, 'We're facing the apocalypse. Who gives a shit how well it's written?' And my hope is that if it's written well, it might catch somebody's attention and be a balm for something that they're going through. [...]And so I try to write well."

There you have it: be a balm. We may not know when or whether the balm is working, but we have to keep on striving, just in case. You can never tell when the passage with that elegant trill will lift a hearer out of despondency, even if only for a moment. The same goes for a well-swept room, or a smooth drive to the airport. The kids home from school may not notice the clean floor, and the passenger texting in the back seat may not comment on the driving, but you don't know that they haven't been affected in some subtle but positive way.

One thing we know for sure: the well-executed picture, the musical passage, and the sentence are each balm for the painter, the musician, and the writer herself. In times of stress and distress, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have done our task as well as possible, and that in ways that may never be apparent we have applied some balm to the wounds of this suffering world.







Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Health Fashions

When I was born, the midwife laid me in the bassinet, on my back. "This is how the child must sleep," she informed my mother. "Or she will die."

When my children were born, I was told to always lay them on their stomachs. Or they would die.

By the time my grandchildren arrived, pediatricians were sure that the only way to ward off SIDS was to never let a baby sleep on its stomach.

My father, a heavy smoker, died in his early fifties of lung cancer.That premature death convinced me of the fragility of the supposedly strong sex, and I devoted myself to preventing my healthy young husband from suddenly expiring. In the 1970s, I did this mostly by eliminating salt from our diet. For years I fed my family broccoli, green beans, and tuna casserole without even a soupçon of salt.

I figured out a way to bake salt-free bread (ordinarily salt is needed for the dough to rise) and published an article about it in some now-defunct magazine. I hope that nobody took my recipe seriously, and I apologize to any readers who did. Maybe they will take comfort in the knowledge that years later I developed a condition that requires me to consume plenty of salt to keep from keeling over.

The salt-free seventies were succeeded by the fat-free eighties. You could eat all the carbs--and yes, all the sugar--you wanted as long as you didn't go near a molecule of fat. My mother was appalled. "This is not right!" she cried. "In Spain after the Civil War people got terribly sick because nobody had harvested the olives and they hadn't had any oil, let alone animal fats, for three years. They had skin problems and bone problems, and some even went blind. Don't believe these doctors who say that fats are bad." Then she would hold up her index finger and proclaim, "Moderation in all things!"

The fat-free diet was supposed to be good for our figure as well as our health, so we drank skimmed milk, gave up butter, and put that dietary oxymoron, "fat-free cream," in our coffee. Fat-free milk products remained popular until a couple of years ago, when studies showed that people who ate full-fat dairy were slimmer than those who ate the fat-free versions. Likewise, people who consume real sugar weigh less than those who use artificial sweeteners.

Remember that early panacea, vitamin C? It was succeeded in our medicine cabinets by the B vitamins. They were in turn replaced by vitamin D, which most of us are now deficient in as a result of following dermatologists' advice never to expose our skin to the sun (remember when sunshine was good for you?).

For a while coffee was supposed to be bad, but later was rehabilitated. Ditto for eggs, and potatoes. On the other hand, liver was once force-fed to children because of its nutritional excellence, but now is to be avoided.

Remember leeches? I don't, and neither do you, but after two centuries of being reviled they're now FDA-approved and back at work relieving a variety of circulatory problems.

If there was one dictum likely to stand unchallenged, however, it was the health benefits of dog ownership. Walking a dog, studies showed, was good for the heart, the lungs, the bones, and the soul. Dog owners lived longer, happier lives than the rest of the population. But I just heard on the radio that orthopedic surgeons are concerned about an outbreak of bone fractures among elderly dog walkers. What's next, an FDA recommendation against dog ownership after age 65?


Given how quickly certain principles of the health sciences are demolished, and others erected in their place, the sanest response is to embrace my mother's mantra: moderation in all things. And while it may feel discouraging that nothing in life is certain, especially where medicine is concerned, we can take comfort in one thing that doesn't look like changing soon: immortality is still out of reach.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Andalusian Fisherman and the American Tourist

Here is a story my mother used to tell: An Andalusian fisherman was lying on the warm sand next to his boat. Earlier, he had brought in a load of sardines, and now he was resting from his work. (The stereotype in Spain is that Andalusians, being southerners, are more easygoing than the rest of the population.)

An American tourist, his face red from too many hours on the beach, stopped in front of him. "Hey, what are you doing there, fella?" the tourist asked.

"I am resting in the sun. Is nice..." the fisherman said, yawning. He had picked up a little English from the tourists who descended on his village every summer.

"Resting!" the American exclaimed. "But it's still morning! Why don't you take your boat out again and fish some more?"

"Why?"

"Well, obviously, to catch more fish, and make more money. You know, moolah, euros."

"Why?"

"So you can buy a bigger boat!"

"A bigger boat?"

The American tourist sighed, and squatted down next to the fisherman. "Bigger boat, more fish, more fish, more money, comprende?"

"Yes. And then?"

"Then you buy another boat, and another, and..."

"But I can't fish in all those boats by myself."

"No, of course not," the American said, speaking slowly and distinctly. "You hire some men to help you fish."

"But then I have to pay these men!"

"Well, yes, a little. But you keep most of the profits for yourself, and then..."

"Then what?"

"Then you're rich!"

"And then?"

"Well...then you can lie on the beach, and rest."


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Embarrassing Embroideries

This appalling piece of work looks like it was made by a drunk person, doesn't it? Note the wobbly lines, the unfinished rows, the uneven spacing, the stains, the pathetic attempt at drawn-thread work. I was not drunk when I made it, but I was twelve years old, and utterly indifferent to the womanly art of embroidery.


Needle arts class was the bane of my school years. My first teachers, an order of German nuns in Barcelona, attempted to teach me crochet when I was six. "Watch me, Eulalinchen" the kindly Schwester would say, leaning close, yarn and hook in hand. But I was too overwhelmed by the proximity of her black veil and her starched white wimple and her fingers twisting the yarn and thrusting the hook into undefined loops to master anything beyond the chain stitch.

In second grade, we were taught to knit. Once again the Schwester showed me how to stick the big needles (this time two of them!) into what looked to me like random spaces. At home, my mother did some supplementary tutoring and even made a row or two for me, but by the end of the school year all I had to show for my efforts was a blue "scarf," barely longer than it was wide, with an enormous gap in the middle.

Just before the start of the summer vacation, the nuns would invite the parents to the annual needlework show. Crocheted doilies and knitted scarves, and the sophisticated embroideries of the older girls were pinned in decorative patters to the classroom walls. I still remember walking into that room with my parents, not wanting to look up because I knew that my scarf with its hole was too disgraceful to be exhibited.

But then, "Look! There it is!" my mother exclaimed. My scarf was on  the wall, among the more accomplished efforts of my agile-fingered classmates. And, miracle of miracles, you could not see the hole! The clever Schwester had pinned all four corners of the scarf to the wall, and scrunched up the middle, where the hole was, with a bright red ribbon.

In Ecuador, where I attended a school run by nuns imported from Spain, there was even more emphasis on needlework. That is where, with sweat and tears and gritted teeth, I produced the sampler shown above. Fortunately my mother, who had spent years of her life embroidering linens and baby clothes and my head-to-toe First Communion veil, overcame her upbringing and her culture and did not give my poor performance with needle and thread any importance. She had greater heights in mind for me to scale.

Although my mother's casual attitude helped, needlework class was an endless trial. But all those years of struggle paid off when, at fourteen, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and entered a high school run by Benedictine nuns. As Americans, these nuns were more practical-minded than my previous teachers and, in Home Ec, instead of cutwork and crewel, we were taught to make a skirt.

After some trouble learning how to thread the sewing machine (I knew very little English and couldn't understand the instructions) I came into my glory when it was time to finish the seams and hem the bottom of the skirt, which we did by hand. Most of the girls had never held a needle or worn a thimble, whereas I had had years of experience. Catch stitch, slip stitch, even blanket stitch held no secrets from me. The Schwester in Barcelona, and the hermana in Quito would have been pleased to see Sister Dorothy hold up, for the class's admiration, the flawless hem of my blue wool skirt.

Much later, my attitude towards needle and thread changed. In the 70s I joined the rest of my generation and crocheted afghans and ponchos out of granny squares. I made dresses for myself and my daughters, and even embroidered a Jacobean bell pull to summon nonexistent servants. 

The brain is a thrifty organ, and nothing that life throws its way is ever lost. My early needlework traumas probably  improved my eye-hand coordination. But they also taught me patience, humility, and frustration tolerance--life skills that have proven far more useful than the ability to produce flawless satin stitches or French knots.

(In this video, Renate Hiller makes an eloquent case for the teaching of handwork to children, and for the benefits that it offers to people of all ages.)








Thursday, February 28, 2019

Unfathomable Mysteries of the Cavalier Mind

Bisou has a new friend, a big, blond Cavalier fellow named L***.Whenever they see each other, they fall into each other's arms, like Tristan and Isolde after drinking the magic wine. But unlike T&I, the love scene doesn't last long, and they each quickly return to their private obsessions, Bisou with her ball and L*** with squirrels.

The latter didn't manifest until L***'s owner brought him over for a play date with Bisou. At first all went as usual: joyous greeting followed by racing around the cottage looking for the cat Telemann. Unfortunately our sun room's sliding glass doors give directly into the backyard, which functions as the village square for the local squirrels, who come in search of spilled bird seed, water from the bird bath, and the society of other squirrels. The minute L*** saw a squirrel at the bird bath, he stuck his nose to the glass, eyes bulging, tail wagging, shivering with excitement, and there was nothing any of us could do to distract him.

"This is so weird," his owner said. "At home he never watches the squirrels, but it's probably because there is a screened-in porch between our glass door and the backyard."

After a few more play dates during which even Bisou gave up trying to lure L*** away from his obsession, we reasoned that if we gathered at L***'s house he would be able to concentrate on playing with his friend. Our arrival chez L*** elicited from both dogs the usual yelps of ecstasy, frantic circling and thoughtful mutual sniffing. L***'s owner brought out a selection of balls and squeaky toys that immediately got Bisou's attention.

But where was L***?

L*** was at his sliding door, nose pressed to the glass, looking for the squirrels that he assumed followed Bisou wherever she went. "Bisou is here," he reasoned. "Therefore, there must be squirrels."

So certain was he of this that, again, it was impossible to distract him. He did chase a couple of balls, but his heart wasn't in it. His heart was with the invisible but nevertheless very real entourage of squirrels that accompanied Bisou like rodent paparazzi.



Compared to other dogs I've known, Cavaliers often strike me as a little odd, albeit in the nicest possible way. I've heard of some that have to be kept indoors in the summer so they won't exhaust themselves chasing butterflies. In her youth, Bisou was obsessed with the frogs that lived in the pond behind our previous house. Not that she wanted to bite them, God forbid. But she delighted in bopping them with her nose so that they would jump into the water with that satisfying plop. Half the time it was Bisou who ended up in the water, but that did not dissuade her, and if we hadn't moved away, I'm sure she'd still be hanging out by the pond, hoping for frogs to bop.

Sometimes when I ask her to sit, or to come to me, she looks at me with a strange, not unfriendly look that seems to say, "Have we met before?" And that's when I'm reminded that she's not a little red person with a tail, but a dog, and that most mysterious and quirky of dogs, a Cavalier.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Life's Too Short

I was scrubbing away at my once-white sofa with one of those magic eraser thingies the other day when I suddenly stopped in mid-stroke. Life's too short to be doing this, I thought. Who cares if my sofa is white, or just white-ish?

I put away the eraser and sat down to hem some pants. I am an excellent pants hemmer, at least at first. Look at those tiny, barely visible stitches, I say to myself. Sister Dorothy would approve! But it doesn't last. By the time I'm a quarter of the way through the first leg, my stitches grow imperceptibly longer. When I get to leg #2 I can barely restrain my impatience. How much longer is this going to take? Life's too short! I bite off the final thread, and see that my stitches would appall Sister Dorothy.

Then there's ironing. Life is surely too short for that. I own an iron, and an ironing board, but years go by without my disturbing their repose.  This despite the fact that I don't really hate ironing, and I wear lots of linen in the summer. But ironing, especially ironing linen, is the ultimate Sisyphean task. There is nothing I like better than a pair of well-ironed linen pants--until, that is, I sit down and when I stand up  my legs look like they are encased in those pleated paper lanterns. So I wear my linen wrinkled, and try not to look in the mirror.

When we moved to our cottage after the Grand Downsizing four years ago, I put  the few items that had survived the purge--half a dozen pottery salad bowls, some crystal, a silver champagne bucket, and a couple of wooden spoons carved by me-- in my glass-fronted china cabinet and closed the door. The other day, I went in to get a brandy snifter and saw that the base had left a dark circle on the shelf. Somehow dust has been getting into the cabinet! I should take everything out, dust the shelves, wipe each glass and dish and spoon, and put them back. Is life too short for that?

Then there's the silver, which now that we're in our golden years I insist on using every day, but it has to be polished every few months...

Remember that weird Zen saying: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water"? Whoever first said it did not think that life was too short for these mundane tasks, but that in fact these tasks were life itself. If you are truly enlightened you perform them with all the care and attention of which you are capable, every single time. The saying reminds me of Saint Benedict's advice to the monk in charge of washing dishes to treat them with the same reverence as he would the vessels of the altar.

I am not totally lacking in self-awareness, so often when I'm struggling with some tiny,  boring, repetitive task unworthy of my higher talents, I think about the potential satisfaction to be found in chopping wood, carrying water, washing dishes. And sometimes I do manage, for a couple of minutes, to banish thoughts of important stuff and focus on the next stitch or the next dish. But it doesn't last, of course, and I shouldn't attach to the idea of its lasting.

It's not easy, this Zen business, but once you come across it it's hard to ignore. What is life not too short for: producing masterpieces, ending wars, saving the earth? How many of us have the talent or the opportunity to do those things? I sure don't. But I can try to pay attention to the heft of the ax, the crack of the wood, the coolness of the water as it sloshes out of the pail. And when the last fork has been polished and the last clean dish put away, I will have truly lived another day.


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Magpie Cat

These days, when you walk into my house, you are met with a barrage of warnings:
"Better hide that scarf inside your coat pocket, or the cat will play with the fringe."
"Let's put your boots in the closet so the cat won't chew the laces."
"Please do NOT leave your purse on the floor, or the cat will rummage in it."
In the past, I've neglected the purse warning, which is how we've ended up with:
#1 a tube of lip balm
#2 a felt zippered bag, containing ear buds
#3 a soft eyeglass case (empty)
#4 many tissues, some used, some not.

Whenever I bring something into the house, even if it's just a stack of mail, Telemann is on it like a flash: What is it? What are you doing with it? Can I have it? Not that I wasn't forewarned: at nine weeks old, when he saw me filling out the adoption form, he jumped on the page and tried to grab the pen out of my hand.

He'll be two years old this month, and he doesn't break as many things as he used to. Now he just appropriates them. In the night, when we are sleeping, he roams the house looking for interesting stuff--paper clips, small ornamental objects, the contents of unsecured wastebaskets--then plays hockey with his findings until they disappear under the furniture.

His favorite toy is a long "snake" of fuzzy fabric attached to a stick. I can get him to chase it and do air-borne pirouettes for a minute or two, but then he catches it, kills it, and, with his head held high, drags it into the mud room.

The mud room is his territory. Not only does it house the litter box, but the hot water pipes run under the floor, which remains toasty winter and summer. The mud room is also where, a year before we got Telemann, a mouse squeezed through the hole where the heating pipes come into the cottage. My spouse stuffed the space with crumpled chicken wire and we've had no more mice. But that doesn't deter Telemann from spending hours staring fixedly at the spot where that mouse once entered, hoping to add him to his pile of loot.

True, my magpie cat is a pain sometimes (often). But when he jumps purring into my lap, gives me a slow blink, and says, I'm the BEST thing that's ever happened to you, I am almost tempted to believe him.
 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bag Balm as Metaphor

Driving down Vermont country roads these days I often see a sight that breaks my heart: a small dairy farm in the process of dying. It happens in slow motion: the roof begins to sag, the equipment to rust, the fences to lean. And then, one day, the cows are gone. In the spring, dandelions sprout in the barnyard and Virginia creepers climb the silos which, by the time winter comes around again, stand decapitated in the snow.

There were over 11,200 dairy farms in Vermont in the 1940s, 1,091 ten years ago, and only 749 last year. It's mostly the little dairies that go bankrupt, while the mega-farms, those with over 700 animals confined in barns, have doubled in number. Falling milk prices, government regulations, high equipment costs, and, especially, the change in Americans' drinking habits (less milk, more beer) are all to blame.

The situation is so depressing that last February the co-op that owns Cabot Creamery sent farmers a list of suicide prevention hotlines along with the milk check (See Seven Days).

Fewer farms, more macmansions: Vermont is not quite what it used to be. If you doubt Vermont's drift away from its rural, farm-based identity, all you have to do is look at the change in the Bag Balm tin.

Created in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in 1899, Bag Balm, that panacea for skin-related cold-weather ills, originally came in a green tin with a picture on the lid of a cow's head framed by a garland of clover leaves and blossoms. The side panels featured a drawing of an udder along with indications and directions for use: "For minor congestion of the udder due to calving, high feeding, bruising or chilling..."

The farmer was instructed to massage the balm gently into the udder fifteen minutes twice a day, or oftener. After a few sessions, those old-time farmers noticed a smoothing and softening of their own chapped skin. And this is how, despite the "Veterinary use only" caution on the tin, Bag Balm spread from the cows to their caretakers and then to village dwellers, skiers, tourists and assorted flatlanders as a sovereign remedy against winter skin woes.

This year, when a succession of weeks with below zero temperatures gave my spouse's hands that old sand-papery feel, he went out to get more Bag Balm and came back with a smaller tin that proclaims itself "Vermont's Original Bag Balm." The formula is the same, as is the pungent, uncompromising smell of the ointment, and there is still a picture of the cow's head on the cover, albeit much reduced. But the drawing of the udder is gone.

In fact, there is no mention of udders at all in the new tin. Gone also are the instructions to "thoroughly wash treated teats and udder before each milking....[After milking]strip milk out clean, dry skin and apply Bag Balm freely." The manufacturers must have figured that all this talk of teats and stripping would freak out customers who don't want to think about where milk comes from. Instead, they are now marketing the Balm as a "skin moisturizer for hands and body," Vermont's version of Jergen's or Eucerin.

Not that I blame the makers of Bag Balm. They are just trying to keep their business afloat, and with fewer cows with sore teats around, they had to expand their customer base. They have a gorgeous website which includes a video of real farmers talking about the product. But I miss the old tin, whose no-nonsense instructions transported me, every time I opened the lid, to the steamy inside of a dairy barn at winter milking time. I imagined the Holsteins, big as school buses; the doe-eyed little Jerseys; and the farmer making the rounds from cow to cow, filling his bucket and squirting an occasional milky jet into the mouth of the waiting barn cat.

This (admittedly romanticized) scene is becoming as rare as the original tins of Bag Balm.What can we do to help small farmers hang on, not just in Vermont but all over the country? Those of us who are neither economists, politicians, or farmers can start with what is right in front of our noses: we can buy, eat, and think local. And if like me you don't drink milk, you can still help the cause by buying local cheese--in Vermont, we have an astounding 150 varieties.*

*France supposedly has 1,000 varieties of cheese, but also 67 million Frenchmen, vs. fewer than 700,000 Vermonters.



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Some Pesky Paradoxes

I have been tormented of late by a quote from the Prajnaparamita Sutra: "Live with skillful nonchalance and ceaseless concern." I can do the second part just fine, since ceaseless concern is pretty much my constant state, especially since November, 2016. But skillful nonchalance AND ceaseless concern at the same time? It sounds like the spiritual version of trying to pat my head while rubbing my stomach.

The "chalance" part of nonchalance is related to the French chaleur, which means "heat." So a nonchalant person is a cool person. Is it possible to be simultaneously cool and concerned? When I try to think about this, I feel like I'm teetering on a tightrope strung between two mountains. To my right yawn the depths of nonchalance; to my left, the abyss of ceaseless concern. One twitch and I plummet.

Here is another paradox that my overly Western brain struggles to embrace: Wu Wei, the action of non-action, or the art of effortless striving. In my twenty years of schooling in three different countries, no nun, priest, or lay person ever mentioned the wisdom of "effortless effort." From violin to trigonometry, all my teachers believed that, if some effort was good, more effort was always better. Where work was concerned, the law of diminishing returns didn't apply.

When I began to study the violin, my father told me, hoping to inspire me, that the great Catalan cellist Pau Casals used to spend six hours working on a single trill. Now I have to wonder, was Casals striving effortlessly towards the perfect trill? Was he nonchalant as well as concerned?

WuWei. Skillful nonchalance. These seeming oxymorons remind me of my mother's well-meaning advice to the angst-ridden adolescent me: "Don't think so much. Be spontaneous. Just be yourself!" Whereupon I would rack my brains trying to figure out who Myself was, so I could go to work being it.

Now here I am, well into my eighth decade, striving to unlearn everything that I was taught, everything that seemed to make so much sense and guarantee results. I'm trying hard to unclench my jaw and loosen my grip, to accept things that sound insane, to combine constant concern and skillful nonchalance.

Clearly, I have a long way to go. Didn't I just write "trying hard "?

"I have known many Zen Masters, all of them cats," Eckhart Tolle
(Telemann at 8 weeks, already master of Wu Wei)





Thursday, January 17, 2019

My Final Farm

Never more than a dozen hens for eggs, and two does for milk. A vegetable patch big enough for everything except potatoes and corn. Some apple trees, a plum, a pear, and half a dozen blueberry bushes. Given what else I was dealing with, my forays into micro-farming were insane, but at least I kept one principle firmly in mind: small is beautiful.

My adult life is marked by three separate ventures into self-sufficiency, all of them harking back to the  farm that kept my teenage mother and her family alive and fed during the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. When she wasn't plunging into creeks in the middle of the night to escape from bombardments, my teenage mother drank goat's milk and ate home-grown rabbits and pigeons and chickens and eggs and grapes and almonds and olives and cabbages and kale. Meanwhile, in their elegant Barcelona apartment my father's family quietly starved for the three years the war lasted, filling their stomachs with water from the faucet every night so they could sleep.

I was born five years after the end of the bombs and the hunger, carrying in my DNA the conviction that when times got bad you could grow your own food and survive, or live an urban life and starve.

My husband and I bought our first house from an older Austrian woman who had probably had some of the same fear-and-hunger experiences as my parents, and had filled her acre and a half with an ambitious vegetable garden, 25 fruit trees, a berry patch, a chicken house. I, who had never grown so much as a tomato in my life, plunged into self-sufficiency like a nun into her vows. That was farm #1.

It was succeeded by #2, after I had to give up my career following a diagnosis of CFS. I was in survival mode and thought, well, everything is going to hell in a hand basket, the least I can do is try to grow some food.

Farm #3, my best-loved, was in Vermont, where we moved when my husband retired. Besides the usual goats and chickens and vegetable beds and apple trees  there were for-real woods where I could gather ramps in spring, and fields where the nearby farmer harvested for-real hay. I used to stand in the front field watching my goats gobble dandelions and think, am I really here? Is this really mine?

But farming even on a micro scale and CFS don't age well together, and one day I threw my hands up and declared that it was time to be realistic and responsible and move to a retirement community on the shores of Lake Champlain. Still in Vermont, still beautiful, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a farm.

I now live in a small cottage with all mod cons and never have to worry about dinner, which is served in the community center up the hill. But this hasn't extinguished my farming drive. My tiny enclosed porch has become farm #4, my final farm.

In it, on sunny afternoons, I sit with my dog Bisou and the cat Telemann. In a Japanese-style tub beside me Yin and Yang, the goldfish, lead seemingly contented lives, protected from Telemann by an electrified scat-mat. Pots of houseplants, the successors to my vegetable gardens, surround me: geraniums prompted into bloom by the light reflected off the snow, an ancient jade plant almost too heavy for me to lift, a Christmas cactus that my cat loves to chew. And, because I haven't given up on my dreams of self-sufficiency, a Meyer lemon tree and a Calamondin orange that gives enough fruit to make marmalade in case of an emergency.

Just outside the window are my substitute chickens.  Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, finches gold-, purple-, and house-, and woodpeckers large and small eat the seeds and suet and drink at the four-season bird bath. Beneath the feeders, obese squirrels squabble over spilled seeds, and at sacred moments clever Reynard, my red fox, trots past on his slender black-stockinged feet.



Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Whiny Writers


Why are we writers such a whiny lot? And it's often the best writers who complain the most. E.B. White kvetched endlessly about having to write his weekly Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker. He moved to a farm in Maine, where he hoped to be able to write more easily, only to discover that he would much rather farm than write. He lamented that, as he went about slopping the pig or gathering the eggs, he couldn’t “watch the show just for the fun of it,” but had to be constantly thinking how to write about it (see Scott Elledge, E.B. White).

Whenever Flaubert wasn’t writing, he was complaining about it to his friend, George Sand: “You don’t know what it’s like […] to spend an entire day with your head in your hand in order to find the right word[…] I spend my life gnawing at my heart and my brain.”

And here is the great Colette, at her peak, telling an interviewer, “I don’t like to write. Not only do I not like to write, but I especially like not writing […] I am so happy, so happy when I’m not writing, that it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t write…” Asked what she’d like to do instead, she answers: “Anything! Anything except writing! Carpentry, gardening, polishing the furniture …”

Colette in her eighties. Her right pinky was permanently bent from decades of writing.
Like Flaubert, she labored endlessly over every word. The appendices of the Pléiade edition of her works show that for every line of finished text there are often half a dozen lines of false starts, reversals, and erasures. So fond was she of not writing that at the height of her career she opened a cosmetology salon. Fortunately, it was a failure and she was forced to return to writing.

Me, I don’t like not writing, but I love having written. Even if I’m just writing about something cute that the cat has done, after I’ve poured my daily ration of words onto the screen I feel cleansed somehow, purged, at ease. It’s the way I imagine skilled meditators (of whom I am not one) must feel after their daily sitting.

There are times, of course, when I don’t like writing. These occur mostly when I haven’t written for a while. Then I find myself stumbling over prepositions, enmeshed in clauses, entrapped by tenses. The main thing I lose when I have been away from writing is the discipline of the first draft, which for me consists of shaking out whatever is in my head onto the screen, as if I were dumping out a waste basket.

At this point, if I allow myself the slightest backward glance over the piece, I always turn into a pillar of salt. The backward glances are the second stage. But by then I have something to work on. The page is no longer a trackless desert over which I must wander alone. There’s stuff—mostly stupid stuff, but stuff--already there. Now all I have to do is fix it, mostly by the enthusiastic use of the delete key.

When I was a sculptor I would start with a block of Indiana limestone and then make a head, or a cat, or a human figure by slowly chiseling off what didn’t belong. As a writer, I first have to produce the stone itself, by quarrying words out of my brain and hurling them onto the screen. Then I chip away until the mess starts to make sense, and becomes something that someone might want to read.