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.