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.




Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Face of Love


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

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

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

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

“Yes, I can,” I answer.

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

“Yes! Yes! I can read!” I insist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Miracle


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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