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 soup├žon 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?"


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


"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.)