Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Cassandra Lineage


Whenever my uncle led the aged, utterly mellow cart horse out of the barn to be harnessed, my mother’s mother would come out of the kitchen and stand watching, her hands on her hips.

“This horse,” she would say, shaking her head, “is going to kill somebody one of these days.”

Like my grandmother, my mother worried constantly about potential catastrophes. “When your father and I married, and then you were born,” she confided to me years later, “I was happier than I’d ever thought possible. But even in the middle of so much happiness, I always felt that God was somewhere up in the clouds, with a big stick in his hand, waiting to hit me on the head.”

More years have passed, and now that I am my grandmother’s age I too spend way too much time looking out for murderous cart horses and wincing in anticipation of the next blow to rain down from heaven.

My grandmother’s and my mother’s persistent intimations of disaster were rooted in their experience of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. My grandmother was in her late thirties then, and my mother in her teens. Since they lived on a farm, they did not starve. But my grandfather, the village vet, sometimes had to hide from the bands of anarchists wreaking havoc in the countryside, and the family would frequently leave their beds in the middle of the night and crouch in a ditch to escape from bombardments.

“We all wore a little stick tied to a string around our neck, so that when the bombs came we could bite down on it and the shock waves would not burst our eardrums,” my mother remembered. The terror of the anarchist raids; the nights spent cowering in the ditch to escape the bombings; and, at the end of the war, the fear of the retreating soldiers left a mark on her psyche that lasted the rest of her life.

It’s not hard to see how those three years of living in constant fear would lead to my mother and her mother’s hyper-vigilance; their feeling that, if they let down their guard for a single moment, disaster would strike; and their bone-deep conviction that life was, at bottom, a tragic affair, and that passing moments of happiness were simply accidental flashes in the enveloping darkness, and not to be relied on.

My first decade passed against a chorus of cautions and warnings.

“This child isn’t eating enough.”
“Look! She has a fever again!”
“She’s pale. She should spend more time outdoors.”
“Don’t let her out of the house in the middle of the day. She’ll get sunstroke!”
“Quick! Shut that window. She’s standing in a draft.”
“Take that book away from her. She’ll get indigestion if she reads after lunch.”

While my mother was alive, I put a lot of energy into countering her apprehensions. When I was a teenager and she had her second child, I watched her live in fear that my vigorous little sister would waste away, and I tried to convince her of the basic sturdiness of babies. When my own children were born and she warned me against germs and other potential threats, I showed off my casual trust in their aptitude for survival. When she tried to talk me out of moving to a rural part of Vermont where hospitals are few and far between, I ignored her and did just that.

But now that both my grandmother and my mother are gone, my ability to put on that tough-woman act has deserted me, and I often shudder at the prospect of imminent doom. I envision endless tragic scenarios, ranging from a flat tire on a deserted dirt road to civil strife, fires, floods, and the extinction of honeybees. It is as if the rose-colored glasses that we all need to wear in order to function in the world have been suddenly ripped off my face, and life appears in all its meaningless gloom.

Just as, when passing in front of a mirror I sometimes think I’m catching a glimpse of my mother, I find myself reenacting the Cassandra role that she and her mother played so faithfully. But why? I didn’t live through the war. I didn’t have to cower in ditches in the middle of the night, or hide from anarchists, like my mother and her family. I didn’t starve, like my father and his family.

How, then, did I become infected with the Cassandra virus?

For years I assumed that my predisposition to see the dark side of things was something I had inherited from my mother and her mother, like my brown eyes and curly hair. But studies of the descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic events such as the American Civil War point to a different explanation.

Though still controversial, these studies suggest that the trauma undergone by individuals of one generation can change the way their genes are passed on and expressed in their offspring, even if the parents do not discuss their own traumatic experiences and the children lead normal lives. The most common manifestations of this trans-generational trauma are anxiety, depression, and lack of resilience.

I don’t remember my parents and grandparents discussing the war in front of me. There were passing references to my father having to stay hidden for three years to avoid execution, but he never talked about what it felt like as a twenty-two-year-old not to be able to go outside, or play the violin, or have enough to eat. Likewise, other than the story of the little sticks on a string, my mother did not say much about that time.

But whether unconsciously, through her own anxiety about my welfare, or through epigenetic transmission, she passed on to me Cassandra’s gift of foreseeing disaster, and I often tremble in anticipation of whatever blow the universe is about to deliver next.

There are many depictions of Cassandra in ancient Greek vases, and she is always shown with brown eyes and dark, curly hair.



Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Not Writing


In 1932, when she was at the peak of her fame, the French writer Colette opened a cosmetology shop in Paris. She blended lotions and potions and applied them to her clients' faces with, as it turned out, awful results. Her friends and the reading public thought that the shop was a terrible idea, and everyone was glad when it closed. But I know what Colette was after when she went into cosmetics: she was avoiding writing.

Over the years I too have tried many strategies to avoid writing: milking goats, training dogs, embroidering pillows. But now that the goats are gone and Bisou is well-behaved and the cottage is dotted with pillows, I have found a new method: whittling birds.

In October I attended a whittling workshop, whittled bird #1, and gave it away. What you see here is bird #2, and I’m about to start on #3.



As simple as this bird looks—it’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand--it took me approximately ten hours to make. How many pages of text could I have produced in ten hours?

In fact, whittling is a lot like writing--or rather, like the second stage of writing.
When I whittle, I start with a block of wood from the craft store. But when I sit down to write I have to make my own “block”: the first draft, where I type whatever comes to mind as fast as I can, not stopping to reread or revise, until a have a block of text to work on.

What I like about whittling—and used to love about stone carving, before my shoulder and arm rebelled—is the subtractive process, getting rid of what gets in the way of the real shape. For me, the best part of writing is making the second, third, and umpteenth drafts, in which, wielding the Delete key like a whittling knife, I eliminate unnecessary stuff until the piece reveals its true form, which is often different from what I thought it was going to be.

But both whittling and writing require an act of faith, that beneath the extra wood and the extra words what I want to find lies waiting.

When I’ve spent too long squeezing words out of my brain and flinging them up into the cloud, something in me clamors for the feel of wood in my hand, the ache of tired muscles, and the final reward of an object endowed with length and height and width, a thing that I can hold and touch. And I know exactly how Colette felt, slathering make-up on the cheeks of her chic clients, playing around with lipstick, rouge, and eye-shadow, not writing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Me and the String Quartet


In 1954 the government of Ecuador imported a string quartet from Barcelona. I spent the last years of my childhood in Quito, in a house that my father, my mother, and I shared with the three other players.

In those pre-pollution days, we all woke up each morning to the sight of five active volcanoes around the city: Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Rucu Pichincha, and, the most apt to shower cars and sidewalks with ashes, Guagua Pichincha. After exclaiming about the beauty of the view and speculating on which volcano would erupt next, the quartet would rehearse.

This began with a lengthy session of meticulous tuning which the cellist, who had studied with Casals, insisted on. My father would play his A string, and the second violinist would try to match it exactly. This took a while. “Maybe it’s a touch flat,” the cellist would say. Then, “Perhaps you need to bring it down, just a hair.” The process was repeated with the viola and the cello, and finally the real playing would begin—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and what my father called a “piece of candy” for the audience: the Tchaikovsky quartet, Op. 1, with its saccharine second movement.

In the afternoon the musicians practiced individually, and my father gave violin lessons to the children of Quito’s Jewish community. On the weekends, we went adventuring—and in those days, the moment you left the capital you were sure to have adventures.

Only my father and the cellist knew how to drive. The cellist had a tiny blue Fiat, and my father drove a 1944 Dodge with a wonky second gear (my mother had to hold up the gear shift with a forked stick whenever we descended from the high Andes to a lower altitude).

We would pile into the two cars and set off for the páramos, vast barren plateaus so high above sea level that, even having grown accustomed to Quito’s nine-thousand-foot altitude, we would gasp for breath at the smallest exertion.

Time and time again we would pull off the stone-paved road, a legacy of the Incas, and everyone would get out and gaze with wonder at yet another set of volcanoes (Imbabura! Tungurahua! Sangay!). Everyone but me, that is. The more my parents exhorted me to appreciate the beauty all around, the less I saw to admire. If at least there had been some interesting animals, but other than the occasional high-flying condor or a herd of llamas haughtily ignoring us, all I could see was an endless expanse of beige barrenness.

The trips to the jungles of the Pacific or the Amazon were more entertaining—someone was always foisting a parrot or a monkey on us, and there were almost-naked Indians with painted bodies. We spent one Christmas as the only whites in a village populated by the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves. They were tall and majestic, very dark skinned, and dressed in immaculate white. All night long, on Christmas Eve, they drummed and chanted in ways that sounded just like the sound-track of King Solomon’s Mines.

Hotels were beyond rustic. On one trip to Puyo, in the Amazon jungle, the viola player, a courtly, balding, bespectacled Catalan, addressed the hotel owner. "Madam," he said, "would you be so kind as to direct me to the bathroom?" She led him to an open window and gestured with silent dignity to the verdant vista stretching uninterrupted all the way to Brazil. In the morning it was raining and, since there was no running water, my father and his three colleagues shaved under the downspout in front of the building.

Did I mind living with five adults? As an only child, in Spain I had made my aunts, my uncles and my grandfather into playmates. Now I did the same with the members of the quartet.

I didn’t much care for the cellist, whom I found vain and affected, with his upturned nose, his little mustache, and his obsession with tuning. But the viola player, despite his thick glasses and his jowly face, made an excellent playmate. Our bedrooms were adjoining, and at night we would communicate by knocking on the wall between our beds. My favorite, however, was the second violin, because he was the best-looking of all--tall and aristocratic, with an elegant Roman nose. Also, he had an ocelot kitten, named Pepita, that I coveted.

Not only did I find these men entertaining, I did my best to entertain them. I made jokes and invented games, one of which consisted of appending Italian endings  like -ella and -etto to Spanish words, which I found hilarious as well as clever. I showed off, sang loudly out of tune, giggled. They in turn teased me and called me Unita, which translates roughly as “Onesy,” referring to my only-child status. If they ever found me annoying, they didn’t show it.

I burst into puberty like one of the volcanoes that periodically erupted around us. There was no graceful flowering into demure young womanhood. Overnight I grew breasts, pimples, and hair on my legs. But my mind lagged behind my burgeoning anatomy, and I persisted in my childish ways. Or perhaps those ways weren’t so childish, and my fondness for the violist and the second violinist was more of an adolescent crush than the reaching out of a lonely child.

After a couple of years, the second violinist packed his bags and returned to Spain. The violist married his Catalan fiancée, a woman in her mid-thirties, by proxy. (This had to be done because her parents would not allow her to cross the Atlantic alone as an unmarried woman.) My parents sat drinking brandy with the groom on his brideless wedding night, and months later, when his wife finally arrived, I lost my remaining playmate. But by then I didn’t care: I had met a boy my age at a bar mitzvah, and fallen in love.

Me being kidnapped in the Amazon by the viola player (holding knife and using my braid as a mustache) and the second violinist


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Golfing Bees


I heard it on NPR, so it must be true: scientists trained bees to play a golf-like game in which the bee pushed a ball into a little hole in order to get a sugar-water reward. The trained bees then demonstrated before novice bees, who not only learned from them but quickly figured out ways to put the ball in the hole more efficiently than the trained bees.

Half a century ago Jane Goodall showed that chimpanzees used twigs to get tasty termites out of their mounds. Instances of tool use further “down” the evolutionary scale, among monkeys, birds, and even octopuses, soon followed.

One by one, the flags that once marked us as unique are going up in flames as animal behaviorists show that, when given appropriate tools such as computers, certain primates can use language, albeit in a rudimentary way. And if you paint a dot on the face of a monkey, an elephant, a dolphin, a magpie, or even an ant, and then stand them in front of a mirror, they will touch the paint spot, thus demonstrating a kind of self-awareness.

And now bees, despite their tiny brains, have shown that they can readily learn, and improve on, behaviors that in the wild are totally outside their repertoire.What are we supposed to do with all this information? Fret and feel guilty, obviously.

I can’t spray soapy water on the ants on my kitchen counter without feeling like some vengeful deity massacring innocent beings. And what about my nemesis, those mouse-sized, appalling wolf spiders that come into my warm house in the fall, hoping in their little spider hearts that this year I’ll let them hang out in a corner of the mud room? Am I a monster for going after them with a broom?

How can I justify anything but the strictest veganism when I know that eating eggs (even ones from free-range hens) and dairy is predicated on the sacrifice of male chickens and calves? Yet even vegans must think twice before sitting down to dinner, now that it has been revealed that trees communicate with each other, warning of dangers such as invasive insects. Mother trees, bless their hearts, do their best to protect and nourish their little saplings. If trees are sentient, what about other plants? How does a lettuce feel as it is yanked out of its native soil?

I don’t know where this will end, and perhaps some human-made disaster will close this chapter in the development of our consciousness. But one outcome is that, albeit slowly, our treatment of animals is improving.

Many years ago, before the advent of PETA, I worked for a few months in a respected laboratory where, with the goal of curing cancer, thousands of mice, hamsters, and rats were subjected to great suffering. Today those conditions would be unthinkable, and a place like that would be closed down.

Every spring, in Vermont, when the moon is in a certain phase and the salamanders march to their breeding grounds, hundreds of people spend the night at designated spots on country roads, acting as crossing guards for the amphibians.

Not so long ago, in both rich and poor neighborhoods , dogs and cats used to run loose, breeding, fighting, and getting run over. Leash laws and spay/neuter programs have rendered the lifestyle of our pets far less “natural” than in the old days, but as a result they live longer, healthier lives. It used to be that you never heard of a cat living into her late teens, but I now personally know of several.

Not a moment too soon, we humans are beginning to abandon our cherished spot at the top of the evolutionary scale. As science demonstrates that sentience and cognition are more widely distributed than we ever imagined, the great chain of being is morphing into a circle, a dance that Brother Wolf and Brother Rabbit (and even Sister Spider) can join in, along with us.



Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Litany


As a musician, my father was seldom home in the evenings, but on his nights off he often led us in saying the Rosary. My mother, her two sisters, and I would sit in the dining room while he walked up and down, beads in hand. The Rosary consists of five Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys. How long does it take to say all those prayers? If you’re a kid, half your life.

“Why do I have to say those same words over and over?” I ask my mother.

“You’re supposed to meditate on the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” she says.

“But it’s boring!”

“Shhh. Your father’s about to begin.”

I stare at the bread crumbs from dinner that litter the yellow tiles under the table. The maid is waiting in her room for us to finish saying the Rosary so she can sweep and go to bed. I glance at my mother’s stockings, which she has rolled like donuts around her ankles to keep them from getting runs, and decide that when I’m allowed to wear stockings I will never roll them like that. I envy my father, who is allowed to walk while he prays, instead of having to sit still.

After the last Hail Mary is said, however, there is a reward: the Litany of the Virgin Mary, a list of fifty epithets of the Mother of God, which my father recites in Latin. After each name, we respond in chorus, ora pro nobis (pray for us).

Here is a sample:

Speculum iustitiae (Mirror of justice)
Sedes sapientiae (Seat of wisdom)
Causa nostrae laetitiae (Cause of our joy)
Rosa mystica (Mystical rose)
Turris eburnea (Tower of ivory)
Stella matutina (Morning star)

I don’t know why this list of names thrills me. Years later I realize that they have  something in common with Homeric epithets such as “white-armed Hera,” and “bright-eyed Athena.” At age nine, though, I have not yet heard of Homer, and I don’t know Latin. I can make out a few words, but even if I understood all of them I would find them puzzling: what is a tower of ivory, or a mirror of justice, and what do they have to do with the Virgin Mary?

But I love the rhythm of the Litany, my father with his raspy smoker’s voice pacing in synch with the names, and us responding ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis. On and on go the names, Mother of our Creator, Virgin most powerful….And this  extraordinary collection of praises is dedicated to a woman—one who as a teenager was visited by an angel, which was just the first of a series of amazing things that happened to her.

And now that She is in Heaven, sitting between God the Father and her Son, Jesus, with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovering above her head, She looks down upon me kindly (Virgin most merciful) and with special understanding, because she was once a girl like me.

The presence of this quasi-divine Lady in the heaven of my childhood gives me something that the images of God the Father, with his white beard, and God the Son, with his brown beard, could never give me: a sense of identification with the divine feminine that puts me in the ancient lineage of females—Babylonian girls praying to Ishtar, Egyptian mothers praising Isis, Greek wives sacrificing to Hera—who, from time immemorial, have sought help and consolation from the Mother of us all.



Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Pasture


Sometimes I imagine, and not in a morbid way, that I’m lying on my deathbed, remembering my life. Like everybody else, I’ve had moments of high joy: wedding day, childbirth, work-related stuff. But there are also more subtly-flavored memories. Pregnancy, once the initial excitement abated, was one. I would lie on the sofa in the afternoon, not reading the book on my lap, not crossing items on my to-do list, not writing letters to my mother, but content to simply gestate.

Nursing my babies was another. Those enforced breaks from the brouhaha of early motherhood allowed me to put aside laundry and work. Rocking slowly, listening to the little slurps and gulps, I might have been a mother cat, blinking in the sun and purring as she nursed her litter.

But that was long ago. The last time I felt this kind of contentment was in the field in front of my house, in southern Vermont. It is a cliché spring morning. The grass is bright green, and the dandelions are glinting in the sun. Up high on the house roof, against the clear sky, the bluebird sings his wistful little song. And, for the first time in months, I am letting Lizzie and Emma, my goats, out of their yard.

They are twin Nubians, one black, one fawn, with droopy silver ears and Roman profiles. The moment I open the gate they dash out to the field, their long ears flapping, and set to gobbling great handfuls of grass.

The field is not fenced in, so I need to stay with them. In the past I’ve tried bringing a book to read, but the moment I open it Lizzie and Emma rush to look over my shoulder, reaching their long necks to nibble the pages: “What’s this you’re reading?” Another time I brought paper and pencil, intending to draw them. But again, as soon as they spotted me doing something with my hands, they cast aside all thoughts of grass and ran over to see, and taste, my drawings.

Since multitasking is out of the question, I watch my goats eat. They tear off amazing quantities of grass and shove them down their throats with a few mighty chomps. Later, when their stomachs are filled to bursting, they will lie down and regurgitate the contents, give them a proper chew, and re-swallow them. It’s what ruminants do.

I sit on the grass and do nothing. Cleaning out the hen house; getting the garden beds ready for the chard and kale and broccoli seedlings that are waiting on the kitchen windowsills; thinning the baby apples that are starting to swell now that the blooms are gone will all have to wait until the goats have eaten.

For now, I watch and I listen. A lulling rhythm soon establishes itself as the goats move across the pasture: step, yank, chomp; step, yank, chomp. The bluebird has stopped singing. Maybe his mate has arrived and they’re at the back of the house, stuffing old grass and twigs into their nest box.

The sun—surprise!—actually feels warm now, and I discreetly take off my down vest and sit on it, to keep from attracting the attention of Lizzie and Emma, who will want to investigate. I breathe the clean Vermont air, chew on a grass stem.  Is this what they mean by “pastoral peace”? It’s a very ancient human thing I’m doing, sitting in a field, watching goats pasture. I think about the shepherds watching their flocks on Christmas eve two millennia ago, and about the even older psalmist who identified with sheep being led to rest in green pastures.

I think about those other peace-inducing states—being pregnant, nursing babies. Like watching goats graze, they are only seemingly passive. Lying on the sofa, rocking in the chair, sitting on the grass, I am doing nothing, but accomplishing a great deal: growing a fetus, feeding an infant, keeping goats safe while they pluck dandelions.

These are things that nobody ever taught me. For once, I didn’t have to take notes, or memorize lists, or practice techniques. They arose in me naturally, without recourse to the frontal lobes of my brain.

I hope that death is another thing that comes naturally, without conscious effort--something that, along with our animal brothers and sisters, we humans instinctively already know how to do. And I take comfort in the thought that in some future spring the molecules of my body will turn to grass for somebody’s goats or cows or sheep, and I will be part of that pastoral peace forever.



Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mantillas



 In Spain, when I was growing up in the 1950s, women wore mantillas to church. These were gorgeous embroidered affairs, white for unmarried girls and black for married women. Anchored by a hat pin, the mantilla was shaped like a rounded triangle, with the tip grazing the forehead and the two sides hanging down over the collar bones. Before the age of reason, which was held by the church to be seven, instead of mantillas little girls wore small round doilies on top of their head.

Some blame Saint Paul (“any woman who prays…with her head unveiled disgraces her head”), while others blame the early fathers of the church for making women wear veils in church. It is easy in retrospect to rage against Saint Paul and his cronies, who regarded head coverings as a mark of submission. At the time, however, we thought of the mantilla simply as a gender-related sign of respect: men had to uncover their heads, and we had to cover ours. Besides, with its scalloped edges framing the face, and the embroidered flowers and leaves both concealing and revealing the hair beneath, the mantilla made almost any woman look mysterious and alluring.

Nevertheless, we took the head-covering issue seriously. If a woman on her way back from the bakery wanted to stop for a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament but had left her mantilla at home, she could throw a scarf or even a sweater over her head. Otherwise, she had to skip the visit altogether (God, we were told, understood these things, and would look kindly upon her intention).

Another ostensible reason for the mantilla was to prevent the men of the congregation from being distracted by the lust-inducing sight of female hair. I found this odd, but then you never knew about men. It was their fault after all that, in addition to the mantilla, women had to wear stockings in church, and sleeves long enough to cover their elbows. Still, even granted their penchant for getting aroused by seemingly harmless objects, I figured that if I had been a man I would have found the elaborate, semi-transparent mantilla way more intriguing than a pair of braids or a head of permed curls.

When I arrived at my Catholic high school in Alabama, I saw that girls, though well past the age of reason, wore not mantillas but “chapel veils,” exactly like the little doily that I had cast aside in favor of the more grownup style after my First Communion. And it wasn’t just high school girls who wore these, but also the adult women who filled the pews with their husbands and kids on Sundays. Some ladies wore padded Alice bands with little stiff, dotted veils pulled down coyly over their noses. Others, having dashed into church on the spur of the moment, simply covered their head with a Kleenex, and secured it with a bobby pin.

I interpreted this nonchalant attitude towards head coverings as a sign of American progressivism, which I was all for. But I continued to wear my no-nonsense Spanish mantilla because I thought it more flattering than the doilies. And if it momentarily distracted from his prayers some hapless boy my age, well, so much the better.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, those tiny chapel veils, perched atop the teased and sprayed, helmet-like hairdos of the time, looked more absurd than ever. By the end of the decade, what with the surging feminist movement and the liberalization of the church after Vatican II, chapel veils and emergency Kleenexes went the way of stockings and garter belts. But the disappearance of head coverings signaled a deeper exodus. Like many of my generation, I put away my missal and my mantilla, and left the church forever. Or so I thought.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Swimming Lessons


My mother believed that for a girl to make her way in society she should, in addition to speaking a foreign language or two, know how to swim and play tennis. In the Catalan village where she had grown up in the 1920s and 30s nobody did any of those things, much less taught them. She had visions of country clubs and elegant house parties in my future, and she wanted to spare me the embarrassment of sitting dry and bored by the side of the pool, or being unable to return a kick serve on the tennis court.

One summer, while we were living in Quito, she heard that a former Olympic swimmer, señor Otero, was offering a girls-only swimming course, and she signed me up. This was just before I developed breasts, while I could still squeeze my twelve-year-old body into my childish swimsuit, a cotton affair with tiny pink roses on a white background..

In the dressing room, as I struggled to cram my thick braids into a white rubber swimming cap, I looked around at my fellow learners. These were no girls! They must have been in their late teens or early twenties, but to me they seemed practically as old as my mother, with fat white thighs and bathing suits that had built-in containers for their breasts.

At an altitude of over nine-thousand feet, Quito’s temperature year-round hovers in the  60s. The pool where we would learn to swim--“like fishes, guaranteed!” according to señor Otero--was outdoors, under a sky that in those days was untroubled by pollution, and with a view of the green slopes of Pichincha, the lively volcano that presides over the city. The pool was unheated.

Before we were allowed to get our feet wet, señor Otero—balding, ripped, and wearing a  tiny bathing suit—dragged out a number of narrow wooden benches and arranged them around the pool. We were each assigned a bench, and told to lie on our stomachs as senor Otero threaded his way among our recumbent forms, explaining the scissors kick and the crawl stroke.

That exercise over, señor Otero led us to the deep end of the pool. “Señoritas, al agua!” he yelled, motioning for us to jump in. The idea was that we would eventually surface, turn on our backs, and practice floating. There was much shrieking as bodies hit the chilly water, but one by one my classmates emerged from the depths and began to float. But I, stunned by the jets of water forced up my nose by the dive, my muscles turned to stone by the cold, just couldn’t do it. Every time I turned on my back, my feet and then my legs, my pelvis, and the rest of me would gradually and inexorably sink.

When señor Otero blew his end-of-class whistle I pulled my soaking-wet braids out of my swimming cap and got shivering back into my clothes. At home, I lay in my darkened room all afternoon while pool water drained out of my sinuses.

Twice a week, for the rest of the summer, I went to swimming class. I suffered through the back stroke, the crawl, the side stroke, the breast stroke and the butterfly. I also suffered from a kind of embarrassment that I had never experienced before: that of being in a group of half-undressed women presided over by an all-but-naked man. I was probably the most naïve twelve-year-old in the western hemisphere, but there was something deeply discomfiting about señor Otero prancing among us, telling us what to do with our bodies, and sometimes helping us do it.

Whether it was because of embarrassment, the mercilessly cold water, performance anxiety, or painful sinuses, while my classmates mastered one stroke after another, I could barely float. And summer was almost over.

Señor Otero’s course would culminate in a demonstration before a crowd of parents, relatives, and boyfriends, and would consist of each student swimming the length of the pool in the stroke of her choice. For me, señor Otero made an exception: I would only be required to float across the width of the pool.

One by one my plump, pale classmates dove in and, using the crawl, back stroke, breast stroke, side stroke and even the butterfly, emerged triumphant at the far end. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and flung myself into the frigid water. I stretched my arms out by my ears and tried to stay horizontal. I didn’t have far to go, but when the cement wall was almost at my fingertips, I felt something bump my hip. It was the head of señor Otero, who, not wanting to have a student drown in front of her parents, had dived in to save me.

A couple of weeks later, my parents went with some friends to El Tingo, a thermal springs resort south of Quito, and they took me along. It was a weekday and the place was practically empty. While the grownups were eating lunch I got into my bathing suit and, ignoring the swimming cap, entered the pool. The sun shone down on me, and in the warm water every muscle in my body softened.

Nobody was watching. I lay on my back and floated a while, squinting against the glare. I felt like I was dissolving in the glorious warmth that enveloped me, and dreamily, without thinking about it, I began to do the back stroke. When my arms hit the cement wall, I realized that I had made it across the entire length of the pool. I turned over and tried the crawl—nothing could be easier! The breast stroke and side stroke were a snap, and I even managed the fearsome butterfly.

My mother was delighted with my sudden metamorphosis into a swimmer. But when it came to tennis, luck deserted us. To this day, whenever I see a ball hurtling in my direction, I turn and run the other way.



Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Mediocre Meditator's Prayer


Dear Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe,

Here I am again, on my cushion, chair, or mat,
with my breath, and bones, and heart.
Oh, and my monkey mind, too.

Already the macaques are leaping through the forest of my neurons, and I haven’t even found my breath yet.
Sigh. Right hip hurts a bit.

What am I doing here, on this cushion, chair, or mat?
What am I looking for?

Wrong! I’m not supposed to look for anything.
But a bit of peace wouldn’t come amiss right now,
Goddess/God/ Ground of Being/Universe.

Now the monkeys are throwing fruit.
Gently let them go. Breathe. Is it time to get up yet?
None of this makes sense.
Focus on the heart instead.

How long have I been doing this? I don’t mean just today, but in my life.
Years and years, but not consistently, not faithfully enough, obviously.
Or I’d be better at it.

Don’t judge. Breathe. Accept.
I can’t stop the screeching monkeys
or send blood to my left foot, which has fallen asleep.
The only thing I can do is to keep showing up on my cushion, chair, or mat.

So I do, mostly,
Goddess/God/Ground of Being/Universe.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Enlightenment at the Vet's


Spent half of Sunday last week at the emergency vet clinic with Bisou. As animals came in they were triaged, and since Bisou was not in dire straits (her problem had to do with anal glands), we had to wait. And wait. And while we waited I fretted.

As often happens with humans as well as dogs, now that we were at the clinic Bisou seemed less bothered than she had been at home. She’d had this anal gland issue before, and I knew what to expect. So what was I doing here, waiting for what seemed like an eternity? Couldn’t I make her comfortable with warm water compresses and take her to our regular vet in the morning?

Meanwhile, cats arrived yowling in their carriers. Energetic young dogs (not much apparently wrong with them) leaped and twisted at the end of their leads. Bisou looked around and was entertained. I pulled out my Kindle and went back to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of the best novels ever. You may have seen the BBC adaptation—it’s about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, are also among the most depressing books I’ve ever read, having to do with man’s (and woman’s) cupidity, cruelty, and stupidity.

As compelling as Mantel’s writing was, I couldn’t get into it. I kept wondering whether sitting hour after hour with a dog who wasn’t anywhere near death’s door was the right thing for me to be doing. Was I being silly, alarmist, absurd? Would the emergency vet laugh at me?

There were other things I should be doing. I had agreed to join a group to write letters to people in Arizona that afternoon, urging them to register to vote. What if, as a result of my failure to show up, half a dozen Arizonans didn’t vote, and my party lost the election? You know what they say about a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon… (on second thought, there probably aren’t any butterflies left in the Amazon).

Worst of all, I felt sure that any intelligent adult in my situation should be able to discern the right thing to do: whether to wait as long as it took for the vet to see Bisou, or pick up the leash and head out the door. So while in Mantel’s novel one side burned heretics at the stake and the other beheaded, hanged and disemboweled those who refused to go along with Henry’s wishes, I flogged myself with the notion that, whatever the right thing might be, I was failing to do it.

Two hours passed. Bisou was getting antsy, and I could neither read nor relax. And then out of the blue I had an insight: I had always lived with the assumption that for each situation there was an ideal response, and that it was up to me to figure out what it was.

But what if, I thought, gently moving Bisou’s muzzle out from under her tail, sometimes there isn’t a clear course of action? Perhaps, faced with my stay-or-go dilemma, even the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and Stephen Hawking might have found themselves uncertain about the right decision.

If, like me, you are saddled with perfectionist tendencies, the thought that sometimes there isn’t a right answer will make you uncomfortable. On the other hand, how soothing to the dithering brain the acceptance of uncertainty, with its concomitant absolution from guilt!

Finally Bisou was called, her wound salved, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories dispensed. Back home after our four-hour ordeal, I gave Bisou her meds, applied a warm water compress to her nether regions, and put an e-collar around her neck. I didn’t make it to the letter-writing meeting. If my favored candidate loses in Arizona, I'll be sorry, but I won't flog myself about it.



Wednesday, September 18, 2019

First Day of School


I started school when I was six, and until I entered that first-grade classroom I cannot remember having been in the presence of another child my age.

The school was run by an order of German nuns who had fled Hitler and come to impart punctuality, discipline, good posture, and the German language to the daughters of the Barcelona élites. It was an expensive school, and my parents would not have been able to afford it if I hadn’t been their only child. But the nuns’ German accents carried a whiff of exoticism that my mother, whose fondness for strange people and places would later lead the family to Ecuador, found irresistible.

That first morning, not just my mother but my father too marked the solemnity of the occasion by walking me to school. As my classmates and I were being marched into the building, I turned for a last look at them. Why weren’t they coming with me? When Schwester Maria showed me my desk, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was in a room without a relative in sight--no parents, aunts, grandparents, or great-uncles and -aunts—just strangers.

I already knew how to read, so that part was no trouble. Nor, unless she addressed me in German, was Schwester Maria a problem, since I was well accustomed to dealing with grownups, whom I usually found to be reasonable and who could be trusted to keep their word. What terrified me were the other girls.

I could make neither heads nor tails of these turbulent midgets, who exhibited none of the courtly manners I was used to from adults. On the very first day, in German class, we were called on to read a list of words: die Mutter, das Mädchen, etc. When it was my turn, all went well until I got to der Vater. Not realizing that in German “v” is pronounced “f,” I gave it the Spanish pronunciation, which, unfortunately, also sounded like the Spanish word for “toilet” (el vater, from “water closet”).

To say “toilet” instead of “father”! What could be more hilarious to a class of six-year-olds, on the first day of school? Instead of calmly correcting me, as my mother or my aunts would have done, my classmates burst into gales of laughter that only stopped when the Schwester rapped on her desk.

But that was nothing compared to the sufferings I experienced during playtime, when my classmates exploded out of the classroom and into the gravel yard, screaming at the top of their voices. Why were they yelling? Why were they running around? What was I supposed to do? I was used to being led and instructed at every step by adults, but here nobody was explaining anything. I had no idea of how to approach the other girls, start a conversation, or join a group.

We all went home for lunch, and when it was time to return to school, I told my mother that I was done. I didn’t like school, and wouldn’t be going back. She answered that of course I had to go, I was a big girl now, etc. I resisted. She tried to take my hand. I grabbed the arms of the rush bottomed chair I was sitting on and held on with all my might. But she pried my fingers loose and I had no choice but, sick at heart and weeping with humiliation, to go down the marble stairs of the apartment house and out on the street, to what felt like my place of execution.

One day I heard a girl ask another “me estás amiga?” (are you my friend? the use of the verb “estar” implying the temporary nature of these friendships). So the next day I gathered my courage and approached one of the more popular girls, the beta if not the alpha of the class.

Me estás amiga? I asked, tremulously. And she answered “no,” flicked her braids, and turned away.

That was it for me on the playground. All during class I dreaded the approach of play period, and all during play period I longed for the bell to ring so I could take refuge at my desk. I did finally find one girl to share the misery of those play periods. She was even shyer than I--the omega of the grade. We didn’t particularly like each other, feeling an obscure contempt for our mutual weaknesses, but we tolerated each other because we had no choice.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, I developed amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” My mother rushed me to the ophthalmologist, who said that the only way to keep me from losing sight in the lazy eye was to cover the good eye with a patch for one year.

This did save my eyesight, but it was disastrous for my social life. One of my more boisterous classmates—bright blue eyes, blond curls, freckles—looked at my patch and screamed, “it’s contagious!” And the whole class squealed and scattered. Fortunately her father, who was a doctor, heard about this and made his daughter apologize, and I shed my leper status.

I spent my school years oscillating between mind-numbing boredom and heart-clenching anxiety. The boredom occurred in the classes that involved reading—History, Spanish, and Religion. Every year, on the first day of school, when the new books were distributed, no matter how hard I tried to control myself I would race through and read them to the end, which left me with nothing to discover for the rest of the year.

The anxiety-producing subjects were German (I never did understand the difference between dative and accusative); arithmetic (my father had no talent for numbers, so my family excused me on the grounds of heredity); handwriting (both my father and his father had exquisite handwriting, so there I was a bit of a disgrace); and handwork (crochet, knitting, and, later, embroidery).

But physical education was the worst. Until I entered first grade I had never thrown a ball or raced another child. My inexperience, combined with poor depth perception caused by my lazy eye, made phys ed. a trial all the way through college.

In grade school, calisthenics, for which we wore knee-length bloomers under our uniform, and which were led by a nun in full habit, was a relief, since I was tolerably good at following precise directions. Also, perhaps thanks to the flexibility I inherited from my double-jointed paternal grandfather, I excelled at forward and backward somersaults. (Since the nun in her long habit was our only phys ed. instructor, I can’t imagine how she demonstrated these.)

As it happened, the subjects that scared me most were taught by nuns (we had lay women, native Spaniards, for the others). However, despite the bitter stories that people often tell about their Catholic education, in my twelve years of Catholic school in three different countries I did not see a single instance of a child being hit or treated in an improper way. There was strict discipline, certainly, but by the same token, even in my co-ed high school we never had to worry about being threatened or harassed by our peers.

Nevertheless, it is true that I was afraid of the German nuns. But I think that that had to do with language. Their Spanish was far from perfect, and when they ran out of patience they ran out of Spanish too. Being scolded or simply instructed to do something quickly (schnell!) by a frowning nun in a foreign language terrified me, so my strategy was to pass unnoticed. At the end of the year I never got awards for academic performance. Depressingly, my prizes were for “buena conducta y aplicación”—in other words, I was well-behaved and did my homework.

The boredom/anxiety ratio shifted over the years. After I felt comfortable understanding and speaking English I grew less anxious and more bored, with the exception of math and phys ed. classes, which continued to mortify me all the way through college.

I am happy to report that my fears of other people disappeared long ago. But sometimes at night, when I think about that first day of school, I can feel once again in my palm the hardness of the arm of the rush-bottomed chair I clung to, and the despair at being fished out of the calm waters of my infancy and flung into the roiling torrent of the world.

Third grade. I'm in the middle row, next to Mater Hilaria. The girl who mocked my eye patch is at the other end of the same row, next to the lay teacher.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dilemma

Had three appointments with service providers this week, and they went something like this:

The hairdresser parted my wet hair into sections, picked up the scissors and said, “And what are your plans for this afternoon?”

 “Got any plans for the afternoon?” the chiropractor wanted to know, preparing to twist my head off my neck.

“Got anything fun planned for later on today?” said the dental hygienist, adjusting the chair.

And the dentist: “Open wide? Awesome! Ummm...do you have any nice plans for the rest of the day?”

When I mumbled something noncommittal they all, with the exception of the hygienist, asked if I had any exciting travel plans or have been anywhere exciting recently.

I find these questions embarrassing. Don’t these people know that I know how boring they must find their clients’ responses? Do they really think that I am so naïve as to assume they will be fascinated when I tell them that I expect to take a nap the minute I get home, then maybe read a book? Do they think that I have no theory of mind?

But if there is one thing I have in spades, it’s theory of mind. I have so much of it, in fact, that I am often silenced by a too-vivid image of how trivial what I’m about to say will seem to my listener.

 Is there anything more soul-killing than someone nattering on about their schedule? The only being on the planet on whom I inflict the details of my afternoon plans is my spouse of fifty-two years. Ditto for travel plans and stories. Who, aside perhaps from one’s own mother, wants to hear about the bistro in Bogota or the flight to Madagascar?

So when people assume that I do not possess the ability to put myself in their place (something that the normal child learns to do by about age four) I feel patronized and embarrassed.

I wonder why these otherwise capable professionals persist in these inquiries. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for five years, and for five years he’s asked about my plans for the afternoon, never noticing that every time I deftly shift the conversation to his Labradoodle,  who is in fragile health.

This tiresome practice is probably the fault of some business guru, who came up with the idea that asking clients questions about their schedules and travels would improve their satisfaction and lead to financial success. But that only works if the clients have a strong narcissistic streak, or lack theory of mind.

My hairdresser, my chiropractor, my dentist and hygienist are professionals. I am their client. I don’t need to feel that we are buddies. Why can’t we rest peacefully in our respective roles and dispense with these attempts at formulaic chitchat?

Of course the trouble with theory of mind is that it is just that: a theory. Which means that when I imagine that my dentist would be bored if I told him about a trip I took in 1984, I may be wrong. He might in fact be deeply interested in my story, and feel gratified that I am willing to share it with him. Perhaps he gets lonely, endlessly digging around in people’s mouths while they cringe in anticipated pain, and is starved for conversation.

So what should I do--answer the questions and be found boring, or dissemble and be thought unfriendly?  The horns of this dilemma are sharper than a dentist’s drill. The only solution I can think of is to let my hair grow to my waist, do hours of yoga every morning, and commend my teeth to the Universe.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

My Inner Snail


Donat pressa! my mother urged at the door of our apartment, as I searched everywhere for my chapel veil. We were on our way to Mass, and if we didn’t get there before the Ofertory we wouldn’t fulfill our Sunday obligation.

Corre, corre! the maid Luisa would say as we trudged up the hill to my school. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns who taught me.

Schnell, schnell! Schwester Maria hissed as I dawdled outside the classroom.

“She’s so slow!” the nuns would lament to my mother. And they were right. In the morning, it took me forever to unbutton my coat, put on my smock (we wore white smocks over our woolen uniforms to protect them from ink stains), find my desk, and get my homework out of my satchel. At lunchtime, I had to reverse the process, and I was always the last one out of the building.

Neither the nuns nor my mother scolded me for my slowness, but I spent my childhood being pressed to get on with it, stop dawdling, pay attention! It felt as if I were mounted on a snail, while everyone else galloped past me on horseback.

It took me ages to learn to tie my shoes. I was ten before I learned to ride a bicycle, twelve before I learned to tell time. I was the last in my class to finish a row of knitting, and in playground chase games I never caught anybody, but was easy prey for my faster classmates.

I lived in a world where people were in a perpetual rush. My father would come home for lunch, fling off his coat, and sit at the table. He would put his watch by his plate and announce, “I have five minutes to eat!” and five minutes later he’d be out the door, violin in hand, on the way to rehearsal. Although my father was the main rusher in the household, my mother, my aunts, and the maid also seemed to live in a whirlwind of activity.

For my part, I dwelt inside a kind of semi-transparent egg, where sights and sounds reached me dimly, and mostly without claiming my attention. While the world spun around me, I peered dreamily at random objects—the s-shaped arm rest in the Tyrolean-style dining room bench, the crusty bread crumbs under the table after a meal, the blue and yellow floor tiles, the raised velvety flowers on the ugly sofa upholstery. I wondered about invisible stuff too, and astounded my mother when, at four years old, I asked her to explain what things were like, before they existed.

But mostly I thought about things that I hoped would happen: that a sudden illness of my maternal grandmother’s would mean that I had to leave school and go with my mother to help out at the farm. And, later on, that my father’s negotiations with the Ecuadorian government would work out so that, again, I could leave school and go with my parents to Ecuador.

In Ecuador my woolgathering habit persisted. Because of the discrepancy between the Spanish and the Ecuadorian systems, at twelve I was put in a class with fifteen-year-old girls, whose obsession with hairstyles, boys, and their “monthly visitor” made me think that they were all insane. I retreated deep inside my egg, and in four years made only one friend, a girl who, as the eldest of twelve children, was accustomed to taking care of slower siblings.

My inwardness was more obvious than I knew. One morning I realized with a start that I was still standing in the silent school courtyard when the rest of my class had filed into the classroom. But I wasn’t alone. Regarding me with her sparkling green eyes, Madre María, the dreaded vice-principal, shook her wimple and said, “I see you’re out of it as usual, Benejam!”

It was only in my teens that I learned to hurry. I hurried to learn English, to clean the house, to play the violin in my father’s orchestra, to finish my term papers, to sterilize my sister’s formula, to put my hair up in rollers at night, to get to Mass in the morning.

With Time’s winged chariot forever at my back, I became a champion hurrier, but at the cost of leaving things half done, of putting the final period on a paper that I knew could be much better, of having to make do with good enough. Newly married, I watched in wonder as my husband dried himself after a shower, from head to toe, including between his toes. I was used to jumping still half-wet into my clothes, never mind drying between my toes.

The older I got, the faster I rushed—mothering, working, cooking, thinking. I did everything at top speed, schnell, schnell! But that was only on the outside. Inside, I was still the same slow me, pondering endless trivia, riding my snail, and wondering if things would ever slow down.

Now that the mothering, the working, and the cooking are mostly over, I still feel that there isn’t enough time in the day for all the things that must be done: clipping the dog’s nails, folding towels, answering emails, inquiring about sick friends, meditating, exercising….My fondest hope is that, sometime in my remaining years, the slow, backward child that still dawdles inside my brain will stop trying to keep up, and be at peace with her snail.



Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Telemann and the Spider Plant


He glares down at me like a gargoyle from the top of the six-foot bookcase, lashes his tail, blinks. “What!” he says, and goes back to administering the death by a thousand cuts to my spider plant.

I have, since Telemann came to us from the mean streets of Philadelphia two years ago, disposed of most of my houseplants. The ASPCA’s list of plants that are toxic to cats lists 417 species (including, for some reason, catnip), so I am now down to a couple of citrus trees, a jade plant, and my once-flourishing spider plant, which is not poisonous because, if it were, Telemann would have died long ago.

When Telemann first arrived, the spider plant was busy making babies on a shelf in the sunroom. Swaying in the slightest breeze, those babies proved irresistible to a kitten who had, poor thing, until now been deprived of toys, stimulation, healthy food, veterinary care, love, and a warm home. As soon as he saw those plantlets, he knocked down a couple and ate them.

I moved the plant to the dining table, but by the next morning several more babies had perished. I thought that the sideboard would provide refuge, but it didn’t take long for Telemann to enact the botanical equivalent of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

I transferred the grieving mother plant to the highest spot in the cottage—the top of the tall bookcase in our bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of light there, but spider plants are tough, and after a while it started to look more cheerful. But that was before Telemann figured that it was only an easy five-foot leap (I made my husband measure it) from the nightstand to the plant. We covered the top of the bookcase with loops of packing tape, sticky side up, but that didn’t deter Telemann, who is probably the only cat on earth who doesn’t mind sticky tape on his paws.

Why are cats so amoral? Why do they do bad things and not care? Dogs try hard to be good, and if they sometimes fail, they suffer pangs of conscience. When Bisou used to do bad things, she always felt guilty. (Now that she’s ten, she hasn’t done anything bad in a long time.)

You’d think that after all I’ve done for him Telemann would let us have one measly spider plant to purify the air while we sleep. But reciprocity is not in his repertoire. If, as the cliché has it, dogs give humans unconditional love, cats expect unconditional love from us.

Still, despite his disastrous effects on my houseplants, I always manage to forgive Telemann, partly because in a weird way I admire his après moi le déluge attitude, his focus on his own desires, and his confounded nerve, which remind me of various autocrats, past and present. Luckily Telemann, with his velvety gray fur, little white paws, and slender body, is much easier on the eye. Plus he does have his sweet moments, when he becomes a purring, kneading machine, and exacts all the unconditional love I have to give.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Milestone

Google Blogger, which keeps track of such things, tells me that as of last week I have published one thousand posts on My Green Vermont. Other than breathing and sleeping and brushing my teeth, I can’t think of too many acts I’ve repeated a thousand times.

Back in 2008 the friend who got me started (thanks, Indigo!) had to explain to me what a blog was. Wanting to avoid unnecessary gaffes, I consulted a number of websites about the rules of successful blogging. And they all said the same thing: you must post frequently. Daily, if possible. Several times a day, if you’re really serious.

I took the advice to heart and gradually increased my output until by 2010 I was posting over four times a week. That was the most I could manage, given that I’d also taken it into my head to accompany each post with a drawing. None of the how-to-blog sites recommended this, but I did notice that most blogs featured photos, many of them beautiful, sensational, or both.  Apparently, online readers expected to be served pictures along with words.

I had a digital camera but its battery was unreliable, and rather than deal with that I decided that it would be simpler and more creative to illustrate my posts by hand. (Now, after all these years, I could paper a room with the originals of my little drawings.)

How did I come up with so much to write about? It turns out that blogging is like finding a loose thread in one of those factory-made hems—you give a little tug, and it just keeps coming. I would start a post about one of my pullets laying her first egg, and that led to memories of being in bed recovering from the measles, with my pet lame chick hobbling and cheeping on the blanket.

I wrote endlessly about chickens and goats and gardens and woodstoves and the wonder of having made it to Vermont, where I could finally live “close to the earth,” as I proclaimed on the blog’s banner. When it became apparent that I couldn’t sustain my homesteading way of life indefinitely, we moved to a retirement community, and for a while I wrote about the dramas of downsizing, and the necessity of letting go of beloved objects and remaining flexible in spirit if not in body.

And then, one day, there seemed to be nothing more to write about. Gone were the goats and the milking pail, the hens and the egg basket, the compost and the wheelbarrow. The woodstove gave way to an efficient gas fireplace and my garden was reduced to a couple of potted citrus trees in the sun room (I gamely squeezed out a post about those).

What was the meaning, if any, of my new life? What occupied my mind? There were my fellow residents, obviously, and the shock of living in a kind of village where the only people under sixty-five were the staff. Plenty of grist for the mill there, but what if a neighbor took it into her head to read my blog?

Between 2015 and 2018 I only managed a measly total of sixty posts. And, just as the advice websites had predicted, my readership all but disappeared, drawn no doubt to livelier, more committed bloggers who managed to post every day, or even twice a day.

Then this year, in the dark of winter, I was spending my days in a miasma of politically-induced despondency. I badly needed to shake myself out of that state. What if I started blogging again, maybe only once a week? I could pretend that it was a real job that required me to post every Wednesday, except in case of emergency. What did I have to lose?

And so I tricked myself back into writing, and once I gave that initial tug, the thread kept coming. Now my week has rhythm and shape.
With a feeling of dread approaching nausea (what if, this time, the thread has broken, the well run dry?) on Thursday morning I force myself to spew whatever is in my head onto the screen. On Friday I piously gather any crumbs worth preserving and ditch the rest. I spend the weekend adding more crumbs and worrying about how I’m going to wrap the thing up.
On Monday I ditch some more and, if I’m lucky, come up with an ending. Tuesday is for drawing and for fighting the improvements that Canon insists on making to my scanner. On Wednesday, just before I hit “Publish,” I ditch some more (how could I have let this ridiculous sentence almost make it into the finished piece?). For the rest of the day I bask in the relief-- reminiscent of the way I once felt after my daily run--of having written.

And because I fret daily about meeting my self-imposed deadline, other worries, such as about the fate of the nation, not to mention the planet, are temporarily forced to take a back seat. It’s going to be a long, angst-filled political campaign. The way things are going, I may have to start posting daily, just to keep my sanity.