Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Dame Julian and I


Across the seven centuries that separate us, I hear her voice whispering to me. The anchoress Dame Julian of Norwich and I have so much in common these days that we are practically twins. Like me, she lived in a time of plague. Like me, she isolated herself in a small space, though her cell, or anchor hold, which was attached to the church of Saint Julian, was a lot smaller than my cottage in the retirement community where I reside.

Her cell, I am told, had three windows. One gave into the church, so she could follow the Mass and take communion. Another opened into the street, and through it she would speak to the people who came to her for advice. The third window was the one through which her followers would hand her food and take away her wastes.

I too have windows in my cottage. Seven centuries have seen major improvements in sanitation, so waste disposal is not an issue. But my food is delivered at my door every evening at 5:30, and although people don’t come to me for advice, friends do come and sit on my porch, where we mumble at each other through our masks. My cottage is not attached to a church, but its back windows look out into a cathedral of trees, which change their vestments with the season, and where choirs of birds sing their own versions of Gregorian chant.

Like me, Dame J was a writer. She was the first woman to write a book in English, Revelations of Divine Love. I am not even the first woman to write a blog, but I nevertheless feel a strong sense of kinship with her, and as I sit tapping at my laptop I can practically hear the scritch scratch of her goose quill on parchment.


Also, like me, she had a cat! (Unlike me she didn’t have a husband or a dog in her anchor hold, but I’m focusing on similarities here.) When the spirit moves him, Telemann jumps onto my keyboard and edits my writing. I wonder if Dame Julian’s cat ever stepped on her work before the ink was dry, and left little flower-shaped prints all over her manuscript?

Julian tells us that in one of her visions God showed her a hazelnut. “What may this be?” she asked. And He answered, “It is all that is made.” I don’t quite know what this means, but she tells us what it meant to her: “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
 

Julian is so reassuring! (She’s also the originator of that COVID-era mantra, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”) I would like to find a hazelnut to meditate on, but the closest I can get to one around here would be an acorn, and right now the chipmunks and squirrels have eaten every last one. But as soon as the oaks drop their next crop in September, I will fill a little bowl with acorns to keep on my writing table, next to my laptop and my cat.



Thursday, July 30, 2020

An Herb For Our Time


Three years ago, on Mother’s Day, I received a terracotta planter filled with annuals in bloom. In the fall, after the first frost, I ripped out the dead plants and stowed the pot in the garage. One January morning, as I got into the car, I noticed a few green shoots peeking out of the pot, stretching with all their might towards the pallid light that seeped through the narrow window of the automatic door. I sympathized with them but didn’t think they had much hope—surely the next cold snap, let alone two more months of darkness, would do them in.

But the little sprouts persevered. Their leggy stems got longer, and a few more leaves appeared, still reaching desperately towards the window. In the spring, when I put it outside, the plant breathed a sigh of relief, plumed its feathers, and filled the pot with new shoots. It celebrated the solstice by bursting into sprays of lavender-colored blooms. The bees and the butterflies found it, and were well pleased.

When a friend told me that the plant was hyssop, I was astonished. Until then, the only mention of hyssop I’d come across was in church, during Mass. “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor” the priest would intone, which the translation in my missal rendered as “Sprinkle me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be cleansed.” Now the herb used by the Jews for millennia and later adopted by Christianity was growing in my pot, its leaves pungent and anise-scented, its flowers a bonanza to flying things.

My hyssop has survived two winters in the garage. This summer I am treating it with special reverence, watching out for its needs and wants. I have offered it an extra helping of potting soil, and I am alert to the slightest droop of its arrow-shaped leaves, which tend to sag in the heat. But the plant is as grateful as it is demanding. It may look in extremis in the afternoon, but it reacts to my evening drenching with an optimistic, upward thrust of its entire being. It is as resilient as I would like to be.

It's still high summer but, to my apprehensive eye, the days are noticeably shorter. The killing frost is a mere couple of months away.  When that comes, I will stow away the porch chairs and drag the big pot, with its cropped head of hyssop, back into the shadows of the garage--and I will retreat indoors, to the cat, the afghan, and the fireplace.

From all indications the coming winter will be long and dark. Unlike in past years, when I mostly ignored the hibernating hyssop, this time I will keep an anxious eye on it, to see if it is still putting out green shoots, and still stretching towards the light.



Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Mystery of the Unborn Calf


I was a backward child, wandering dreamily in a world filled with mysteries and miracles. At ten, even as my breasts were starting to develop, my mother had to sit me down and inform me that it was  parents who gave their children gifts on the feast of the Epiphany--not the Magi following the star on their camels. Prior to her revelation, I had felt no need to question the story. I had been taught that my guardian angel hovered over my right shoulder as I went about my day, and the Virgin Mary personally kept vigil over my bed at night, so why not flying camels and wandering stars? 

One day a couple of years later, informed by the maid who made my bed that overnight I had transitioned from niña to mujer, my mother called me into her room and handed me a box of sanitary napkins and a belt.

“What’s all this?” I asked, oblivious to the events of the night.

She explained the basics. Thinking that menstruation was an annoying but temporary manifestation of adolescence, like acne, I asked her when it would stop. My mother smiled. “Not until you are very old,” she said.

Along with the supplies, she handed me a Spanish translation of a booklet published by Modess. It had line drawings of cool-looking American girls in circle skirts and saddle shoes, and, less interesting, sketches of the organs that menstrual blood came from. The booklet did not explain what the bleeding was for, and it never occurred to me that it had anything to do with babies, much less with men. I did notice that some pages seemed to have been cut out of the booklet, but I didn’t ask.

Now that I would have to carry those bulky pads around with me, my mother decided that I needed a purse. We were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply walk into a store and buy one. Like furniture and clothing, purses had to be made to order. She took me to the man who made things out of leather, and they had a conversation about the design of the purse while I stood on one foot and then the other, daydreaming. They decided on one in the shape of a flattened flower pot.

As they discussed the kind of leather--cow, pig, alligator?-- to be used, the man said something that startled me out of my trance. “I have something that would be perfect for the child,” he said, spreading a skin on the counter. It was covered in short, fine, honey-colored fur. He ran his fingers over it and smiled at my mother. “It is unborn calf. Feel how soft…”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “That is impossible. How can you make a purse out of a calf that is not born, that doesn’t exist?”

“Hush!” my mother said.

"No, really," I persisted. "It's absurd!"

My mother gave the man a deposit for the purse and hustled me out of the store. At home she explained that before birth calves grew for several months inside mother cows, just as human babies grew inside their mothers. Again, she made no mention of bulls or men, and again I didn’t ask. After all, hadn’t Our Lord been "conceived of the Holy Spirit"? But that was not the main issue on my mind.

“It must hurt a lot when the baby comes out!” 

“Yes, of course,” my mother said. “Maybe that is why mothers love their children so much.”

I remember feeling skeptical about this. Why would one love something because it hurt? But of course many other painful things were supposed to be good or even holy--fasting before communion, giving one’s allowance to the poor, not to mention Our Lord’s death on the cross—so the pain of childbirth fit right in with my worldview.

Although I am sorry that I embarrassed my mother and the leather man that day, I nevertheless recall my preadolescent self with tolerance. My lack of curiosity about sex was not evidence of an impoverished mind. On the contrary, my mind was already so full of unfathomable things that there was no room for thinking about mundane stuff like where babies came from. Figuring out what  impelled Saint Eulalia at age thirteen to confront the Roman governor of Barcelona, an avid persecutor of Christians, who then proceeded to torture and kill her, was more engrossing than wondering how that calf got into the cow in the first place.

I wore the calf-skin purse for a long time, until the zipper broke. Another thing that I neglected to wonder about during those years is what had to happen to the cow in order for her unborn calf to be made into a purse. I regret that I came late to an awareness of the suffering of animals, but I am making up for it now.



Sunday, July 19, 2020

Raccoon


This morning in the woods, Bisou treed a raccoon. He was almost her size, and cursing loudly, and it took me a while to get her away from him. Who knew that in her genteel DNA there lurked some coonhound genes?


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Hermits


The hermit thrush alone is a good reason to live in Vermont.  All by himself, this little brown bird with the speckled breast makes up for the cold, dark winters, the messy mud seasons, and the spotty wi-fi coverage.

He comes by his name honestly. He declines to visit feeders, but stays hidden in the woods where, during the nesting season, he decants a pure, cool, silvery rill of sound. I live too much in my head to notice a lot of what Nature, like a street vendor setting out her wares, puts out for my delight. I can pass a lilac in full splendor with barely a glance, but the song of the hermit thrush stops me in my tracks. When he sings, I have to stand and hear him to the end, or I would feel like I was walking out in the middle of a recital.

Although he shies from applause, there is nothing timid or self deprecating about his performance: he sings with the aplomb of a seasoned performer. I wonder what a young hermit’s first song is like--is the timing off, are there false notes, or does it emerge from him as faultless and elegant as that of his father in his prime? As I have never heard a thrush miss a note, I suspect that they are all born musical prodigies.

This has been a good summer for hermits. The thrushes sing late into the morning, take a short break, and resume well before the sun goes down. The virus-imposed stillness in my life has made it easier for me to pay attention. At sunrise and sunset I come out of my own hermitage and listen to the invisible singer pour out his melody from the shelter of the woods.

Whenever I hear the thrush, my grasping, non-Zen self immediately pleads “don’t stop. Keep going. Encore!” And I waste the last clear perfect notes thinking that  the solstice is already behind us, and all too soon he will head south, and the woods will return to silence. But isn’t the very fact that he’s not around all year, that he shuns my feeders, that he stays hidden in his woodland cloister what makes him so precious? If I heard him in all seasons, would I still listen?

From all indications, the coming winter will be an especially dark one. Like the chipmunks, I will retreat from porch and yard and go to earth in my cottage, to sleep and snack and endure as best I can. I will be grateful for every cheeping titmouse and chickadee that visits my feeder while I await the little brown singer’s return. I will think of him scratching for insects in the leaf litter of some southern wood, but saving his song for the love season in Vermont, and for his fellow hermit, me.



Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Guys on Monuments


Walk through almost any public park, and you’ll find yourself staring up at the hooves of rearing stone or bronze horses, mounted by guys brandishing swords or guns.  Sometimes, instead of on horses, the guys sit on thrones, holding scepters, or on chairs, grasping rolled-up parchments. Sometimes they stand looking up at the heavens, with their feet well apart and their chest stuck out, like a rooster about to crow.

Some monuments do feature women, but most often as allegorical figures, blindfolded and holding up scales, winged to celebrate a victory, or lighting the way to freedom. And, whereas the men are dressed in regular clothes, or at least in togas that fall in dignified folds, the female statues usually sport clinging draperies.

There are, of course, some monuments to real women, mostly queens--Isabella, Victoria, Catherine the Great--but they are few and far between. You can also find statues of women in Catholic churches. They are honored for their patience, obedience or, in the case of the virgin martyrs—Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Eulalia et al.--for having died horrific deaths for their faith.

But back to the guys on monuments. Whether monarchs, generals, writers, or philosophers, how many of them believed that women were full human beings, their equals in every respect? How many observed the same standards of sexual behavior that they expected of their women? How many spared their wives the ordeal of too-frequent childbearing? How many gave their daughters the same education as their sons, and paid their housemaids the same salary as their footmen?

Yes, I know. They were “men of their times,” and it’s unfair to expect a nineteenth-century general to be a feminist. But lately, being “of their times” with regard to people of color has not kept Columbus, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee on their plinths.

So I’m thinking, what would happen to the planet’s parks, plazas, piazzas, agoras, and government buildings if women decided that it was time to take down the statues of men who believed themselves the superior sex? There would be a lot of empty columns and pedestals. And when the rubble was cleared away, what would go in their place?

Perhaps we could put up some statues of actual women--the writers, artists, thinkers, and social reformers that history has ignored. I would keep those heart-breaking monuments to the unknown soldier--the innocent, likely unwilling cannon fodder of past wars. But alongside them I would like to see monuments to the anonymous women who have died in childbirth, the flotsam and jetsam of our species’ drive for survival.

Still, I’m not fond of following in the old pattern of statuary that exalts the one above the many. I would like to see those newly cleared spaces made into gardens, and not just decorative parterres and flower beds, but fruit orchards, berry patches, and vegetable plots. Tended by the citizenry for the citizenry, these would celebrate community and honor humanity far better than a marble statue of a guy on a horse.

But I am not a total iconoclast. The most beautiful or historically relevant of the old statues could be housed in museums to be visited by school children who, in the utopian future I am envisaging, would stare at them wide-eyed, and ask their teachers to explain why they were all statues of men.



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Soul of a Chipmunk


There is a bird bath by our back door, and in the evening the wildlife come to drink. It’s like a Serengeti waterhole, with finches, a squirrel or two, and the chipmunks in lieu of ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. There is even a lion-equivalent, albeit behind the glass: the cat Telemann, who creeps and skulks and lashes his tail and then hurls himself against the glass, sure that this time he’ll get lucky.

The squirrels long ago figured out the nature and role of glass doors, and they pass this knowledge down to their children, who ignore the gray beast and continue with their drinking. The chipmunks are more skittish, but they’re slowly learning to ignore Telemann’s attacks.

Chipmunks, even full-grown ones, exude baby charm, with their big heads, tiny noses, and widely spaced eyes. Elegant stripes of black, cream, and gray run the length of their bodies, as if they had been carved from some richly veined wood. From my COVID cloister, I spend a lot of time watching chipmunks, and as anyone knows who has looked closely, in order to draw it, at a leaf or a sleeping cat, the attentive gaze sooner or later ensnares the heart.

The Franciscan Richard Rohr says that “we must love something deeply to know its soul.” So if looking leads to loving, and loving leads to knowledge of another’s soul, I should, with luck, before autumn come to know something of the chipmunk‘s soul. But what can a chipmunk’s soul, its essence, possibly be like? How can I, a lumbering giantess by comparison, understand the quicksilver brevity of a chipmunk?

Wittgenstein said that if a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him. But he was talking about understanding as an intellectual process. I’m talking about knowledge and understanding as an action of the heart, prompted by love--the kind of knowledge that Saint Francis had of the birds and of the wolf of Gubbio. The kind of understanding that Robert Burns had of the mouse whose nest he accidentally broke up with his plow. The kind of knowledge of our brother primates that rewarded Jane Goodall’s patient gaze.

As the summer unspools, I attend to the chipmunks, and wait to see what arises. The trouble is, they’re so quick that they’re usually just a blur, so to supplement my practice I looked at a couple of chipmunk videos on YouTube.

One of them showed a mother chipmunk who had made her nest inside what looked like the hollow leg of a horizontal aluminum ladder. The end was covered by a piece of metal with a hole in the middle. Her thumb-sized baby was old enough to crawl out of that hole, but, in her opinion, not old enough to spend the night outside.

She opened her mouth wide, picked him up around the middle, and tried to stuff him sideways into the hole, but he was too big. She put him down and picked him up by the hip, but he still didn’t fit. He needed to go in nose-first, the way he had come out, but she couldn’t manage it.

It was getting dark, and she was frantic to get him back inside and put him to bed.  He would have none of it. With the foolish invulnerability of the young, whenever she loosened her grip he would move away, twitching his tail and staring out at the wide, green, new world. She tried showing him by example. She went into the hole and then stuck out her head saying, see how it’s done? But he would ignore her and she would jump out and pick him up again.

I watched the four minute video in an agony of maternal empathy. Here before my eyes the eternal drama of the generations was being played out: the young struggling to get out and get away, and the old pleading, Wait! It’s not safe! You’re not ready yet!

The chipmunks outside my window move too quickly for me to grasp their soul. But that mother chipmunk was speaking my language, and her words echoed in my heart.



Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Lament of the Hostess

Heaven knows, I am a compliant soul. My female condition, not to mention my Catholic girlhood, incline me towards obedience. So when, in this virusy era, residents of the community where I live are directed to wear a mask, stay out of stores and each other's houses, and keep a six foot distance from each other, I bow my head and strap on the mask, reject the shelter of a friendly roof in the rain, and keep both friend and foe a sword's distance away from my body.

When a visitor arrives, I carefully place our chairs eight feet apart on my front porch. We sit and strain to hear our muffled voices beneath our masks, guess at our hidden smiles, and peer into each other's eyes to discern the real meaning of what we think the other just said. Even in Vermont, it gets hot at this time of year, and as the hour passes my friend and I begin to sweat while our glasses fog up, and we hear the air conditioner's chilly hum in the forbidden indoors.

None of this is easy, but for me one of the hardest parts is not being able to offer her...anything. I'm not talking about a four-course dinner, or a smear of brie on a cracker, or a single roasted peanut. I'm not even allowed to give her a cup of coffee (iced and with a splash of cream would be lovely in this weather), or a glass of wine, or a drink of water. In order to swallow any of these things we would have to remove our masks and open our mouths, thereby shooting clouds of virus into the atmosphere.

I don't know why this particular restriction seems so hard, but as my friend and I sit mumbling into our facial coverings, I keep having to quell the urge to jump up and run inside and bring out something for us to share. I had no idea that the hostess instinct was so rooted in me, but there you have it.

I suspect that I'm not alone in this. There is something atavistic about the desire to offer food and drink to a visitor. Perhaps as she hands over a bowl of dip and a plate of crudités, the hostess's subconscious is saying "See? My hands are full of good things. I cannot attack you." And the guest's subconscious sighs: "Whew! I guess it's o.k. to relax."

Our fellow primates, the monkeys and apes, share food with their friends. My dogs Wolfie and Bisou used to share bones (well, Wolfie, who outweighed her by seventy pounds, used to let Bisou have his). And partaking of meals is at the center of countless religious rituals.

So yes, it's tough, and it feels inhuman not to be able to eat and drink with friends. This is why restaurants were among the first establishments to open in many states (restaurants and tattoo parlors, the latter pointing to the even more primitive urge to paint one's body), and people flocked to them. And many of those people are now paying a heavy price.

Which is why for now I'll keep my fridge door tightly closed when a friend comes over. Instead I will indulge in one pleasure that is still allowed and never gets old: complaining.



Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How I Watch the News

This is how I watch the news these days. First, the cat, the dog, and I jockey for position on the loveseat. Guess who always wins...


Then the daily blend of despair-inducing catastrophes, outrages, and cataclysms assaults my ears and threatens my sanity:


But when it's over, I put my arms around my comfort critters and things don't look so dark.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Mater dolorosa

I haven't thought of Our Lady of Sorrows in a long time. But in these soul-wrenching days, when the distress both in me and around me has drained words of their meaning, I find myself turning to the Mater dolorosa, that image of the Divine Feminine onto which humanity has, for more than a thousand years, projected its longing for consolation. Whatever your own source of solace, may you find strength, hope, and ease in this bleak summer of 2020.


Thursday, June 4, 2020

Grateful Houseplants


(Although it feels frivolous to write about houseplants at such a sad and anxious time, I offer this post in the same spirit as those Italians who sang arias on their balconies at the peak of the pandemic.)

I like a grateful houseplant, the kind that perks up after a watering, and smiles greenly at me in the morning when I spritz it. Take the giant peace lily that I rescued from one of those big box stores just before the quarantine started. The margins of its leaves were being chewed up by an invisible pest or disease of some kind, but when I got it home I trimmed off the damaged bits and put it on a regimen of daily misting and weekly watering (it’s the only one of my houseplants that demands such frequent drinks). It promptly rewarded me by putting out a dozen shiny new leaves and even a couple of those weird white blossoms known as spathes. That’s what I mean by a grateful houseplant.

At about the same time, I also brought home a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans). It was an impressive specimen, taller than me, with thick, woody stems and several clumps of long, arching green-and-yellow striped leaves. Although the nursery tag did not mention this, I read online that I should never water Dracaena with city water. Even spritzing with it would cause the plant to develop brown spots that would expand until the leaf—and eventually the entire plant-- shriveled and died.

I looked at my Dracaena and realized that whoever had been caring for it in the store had not read those warnings, as many of the leaves were already speckled with tiny brown dots. The experts advised using distilled water, but that seemed both expensive and ungreen to me. The alternative was rain water. It doesn’t rain much in February in Vermont, but there is plenty of snow, so for weeks I scooped handfuls of snow into a bucket, brought it inside to melt, and used it to water and mist the Dracaena.

Along with the Dracaena I had also bought a lovely variegated Cordyline fruticosa, or Ti plant (what can I say? It was the depths of winter, and the plants were unbelievably cheap). Again, though the nursery tag didn’t mention it, the online pundits were unanimous against using tap water on the Cordyline, so I put it on the same melted-snow diet as the Dracaena, and expected that all would be well.

The spring sun finally melted the snow, and from then on at the first sign of rain I would rush out and put a bucket under the downspout. The rainwater seemed to be working, at least for the Cordyline, which was putting out bright pink leaves that mixed with green as they aged, to produce a lustrous coppery color. But the Dracaena did not react so well. The original brown pinpoints grew larger, and new spots appeared where my rainwater spritzes had landed. I rechecked the online sources, made sure I was doing everything right, and continued with the treatment.

When the Dracaena showed no signs of improvement, I moved it to the brightest spot in the sunroom, but it continued to droop. Day by day it looked more feeble, seeming to shrink into itself. I began to feel that I was running a houseplant hospice.

There is something about a sickly plant that drains the soul. Locked indoors with my dying Dracaena, I found myself avoiding the sunroom with its doom-laden atmosphere, and resenting the plant for not responding to my attentions. All my other green houseguests—the peace lily, the Ti plant, the aloe, the aglaonema, the jade, and the spider plants that I grow for Telemann to nibble—were glowing with health. But not the Dracaena. Every morning I would look at it, give it a few spritzes, and check the soil to make sure it wasn’t too wet or too dry. But the plant ignored me and continued to decline.

I could have simply gotten rid of it, but it was a living thing, and a large one at that. It had presence. For all I knew, it had feelings of some kind. I had brought it home and taken responsibility for it, and in exchange I hoped that it would bring badly needed cheer and vitality into my days. Like people who hesitate to euthanize a suffering pet, I clung to the expiring Dracaena.

And then one afternoon, in a fit of irritation not untinged with guilt, I dragged it outside, chopped up the leaves and stems, and scattered everything in the woods. Then I went indoors, sat down in the sunroom, opened my book, and basked in the aura of ease and contentment that radiated from my remaining, grateful plants.



Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Perfectibility


When we lived in Quito, I used to ride the school bus home for lunch. My mother would sit at the table and watch me eat.

“Sit up straight,” she would say, followed by:

“Don’t put your elbows on the table.
Chew your food well. Digestion begins in the mouth.
You’re slouching again.
Don’t scrape your knife on the plate.
And take the hair out of your eyes. I want to see your forehead.
Elbows!
Why are you hunched over?”

At this point, even the afternoon algebra class began to seem appealing. “I have to go now," I would say, getting up, "or I’ll miss my bus.”

“Put your chair back where you found it. Wipe your lips. Fold your napkin. María! (calling the maid) Take the child across the street. Her bus is almost here.” I was almost an inch taller than tiny Indian María, and I have to give her credit for keeping a straight face as she wiped her hands on her apron and walked me across the street.

As justified as my mother’s admonitions were, I did not take them with good grace. The brand-new hormones coursing through my veins, while giving me the external attributes of a woman, were doing nothing to turn me into a lady. Instead, for a last, blessed reprieve, I clung to my childish conviction that I was fine just the way I was.

But my mother was an optimist. No matter how much I resisted her, she was convinced that she would prevail. In fact, it was her duty to prevail. “Do you think I enjoy having to correct you so much?” she would say when I complained about her constant monitoring. “I do not! I would much rather be doing something else, like going for a walk, or reading a book.”  I was skeptical. I couldn’t believe that anybody could devote so much time and energy to something they didn’t enjoy at least a little.

“And your grumbling and protesting,” she went on, “do you think I enjoy that? Don’t you know how much more pleasant my life would be if I let you do as you please? But what would happen if I did? What sort of person would you become?” She would shake her head sadly, indicating that she didn’t have much faith in my future if I were left to my own resources. “No! I am your mother, and it is my sacred duty—sacred, do you hear?—to correct you when I see you doing something wrong. Even if it means that you love me less sometimes. I must put my own feelings aside and do what I know is right, no matter how much pain it brings me.”

This usually shut me up. How could I argue with her sacred duty? How could I complain when she, who loved me more than anything in the world, was willing to sacrifice herself in order to do the right thing? In her youth my mother had studied law, and she brought her best courtroom technique to these confrontations. Like an ill-prepared defense attorney, I capitulated before her prosecutorial skills.

But I had to do something to get her off my back, at least temporarily. If I couldn’t defeat her in argument, I might be able to negotiate with her. So I offered her a deal: I would accept her corrections without complaint every day of the week if she would agree, on Wednesdays at lunch, to let me eat without comment.

To my amazement, she gave in. When Wednesday came around, there was soup for lunch. I tucked my hair behind my ears, bent over the bowl and, as my mother watched in silent disbelief, lapped up the soup like a dog. The soup was hot, and it dribbled down my chin and onto my uniform blouse. There were chick peas and chunks of meat floating around, and it was hard to catch them without using a spoon. It felt disgusting, but I was intent on demonstrating to my mother that she had to respect our deal no matter what, and I persevered until the last drop was gone.

The next Wednesday, assuming that I had made my point, I intended to make full use of my silverware, and simply looked forward to a critique-free meal. But as soon as I picked up my fork my mother said, “I know it’s Wednesday, and I’m not supposed to say anything. But do you realize that your left elbow’s on the table?” I rolled my eyes, dropped the elbow, and continued eating. My mother cleared her throat. I looked up and she pointed silently at my napkin, which I had neglected to place on my lap. The next time she opened her mouth, before she could even speak, I sat up straight.

It was no use, and so I gave up my campaign. For the first time ever, I saw my mother not as someone who, along with my father, stood practically next to God in goodness and omnipotence, but as a woman who was helpless, because of some quirk of her psyche, to quell the urge to polish me until I gleamed like a mirror in which she could see herself.



Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Homesick


 While my mother, immobilized by vertigo, lay stretched like a corpse on the bed in our Manhattan hotel room, my father and I went to the top of the Empire State building. It was the spring of 1954, and we were on a two-day layover on the week-long airplane trip from Barcelona to Quito.

“Why is she sick?” I asked my father as we walked down Fifth Avenue.

“It’s because she’s sad that we left Barcelona,” he said.

Sad! What was there to be sad about? Weren’t we going on a fabulous adventure to South America, one even more thrilling than those of Hernán Cortés, Ponce de León and Francisco Pizarro? And hadn’t my mother, driven to distraction by the monotony of her housewifely existence, been the principal force behind my father’s acceptance of the Ecuadorian government’s invitation to found the country’s first string quartet? There was no room for emotional ambivalence in my ten-year-old heart. I couldn’t understand that my mother, who had wanted to go on this escapade as much as I had, could also feel regret at leaving her family behind.

For the next three years, while we lived in Quito, my mother oscillated between breathless excitement at the exoticism of it all--snow-capped volcanoes! endless jungles! head-hunting tribes!—and elaborate bouts of homesickness.

I never quite understood what was going on with her, but I sensed that the homesick role was hers to play. By contrast, I sought to distinguish myself by adopting a mask of stoicism. Tears and complaints were not for me--I wasn’t a baby anymore, nor was I sentimental, like a woman. I preferred to mimic my father, and leave the tragic persona to my mother.

And yet, how could I not have been homesick? But nobody asked if I was, and when confronted with my mother’s articulate depictions of her nostalgia, I assumed that mine, if it existed, couldn’t hold a candle to hers.

True, I was sheltered by my parents’ reassuring presence. But once the excitement of being in a foreign place wore off and life settled into a routine, how could I not miss the rhythms of my existence in Catalonia, where each month was marked by some festival, its ritual, and its accompanying dessert?

January was the month when the Three Kings brought me presents and we ate the marzipan-stuffed tortell de reis. February 12th was the feast of Saint Eulalia, and my mother bought ensaïmadas from the bakery in my honor. On March 19th, the feast of Saint Joseph, my aunts made crema catalana in celebration of my grandfather.  In April, for Easter, my godmother gave me the mona de Pasqua, a cake topped with chocolate eggs. In May, the month of Our Lady, we ate strawberries. And all summer-long, at my grandparents’ farm, we feasted on melons, peaches, and pears so ripe that their juices ran down my chin and soaked the front of my cotton dress.

All this was gone. And so was the tutelary presence of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, who had revolved like planets around my sunny childhood, and whose affection, interest, and willingness to entertain me I had taken for granted, just as an infanta assumes the devotion of her courtiers. But that wasn’t all. In the constant hubbub of our extended family, the to-and-fro of visits and phone calls, the telling and retelling of stories, gossip, opinions, advice, and concerns, my relatives had absorbed some of my mother’s emotional energy and distracted her from her focus on me.

Now, without her sisters to argue and shop with, her parents to worry about, and her in-laws to visit, my mother’s attentive gaze, when she wasn’t soaking fruits in permanganate or boiling milk to kill the tropical parasites that threatened us daily, was directed at me. And what she saw was in need of improvement. My baby charms were fading fast, and I was morphing into an icon of preadolescent awkwardness. I was a work in progress, and my mother girded her loins for the challenges that lay ahead.


My mother and I in Quito, 1954

Sunday, May 17, 2020

House Cleaning, Part 2: Good Enough


The good fairy at my cradle gave me a couple of gifts for which I’m grateful. But the bad fairy did me a terrible turn: she instilled in me the conviction that whatever skill I tried to develop, especially the domestic arts, the result was never quite good enough.

Apparently, I am not alone. If the messages from readers of my post about house cleaning are any indication, swarms of bad fairies hover above the cradles of baby girls, and a few baby boys, raining domestic performance anxieties on their innocent heads.

Fortunately, one of you reminded me of the brilliant concept of “good enough.” The term originated with Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist who worried about parents (mostly mothers) tormented by the anxiety that they were falling short of the parenting ideal. Children, Winnicott reminded them, did not evolve to require perfect parents. What they need in order to thrive is mostly reasonable, well-intentioned, usually kind, generally stable, “good enough” mothers and fathers. What they don’t need is parents driven to neurosis by the compulsion to be perfect.

In light of Winnicott, Saint Benedict’s instruction to treat all utensils as if they were the vessels of the altar can seem neurosis-provoking. I may be able to wipe one glass as if it were a consecrated chalice, but a whole sinkful of dishes? Also in light of Winnicott, my compulsion to dust every single book and the shelf behind it was in fact counterproductive, since it led not to my having feelings of reverence towards those yellowing tomes, but to my wanting to throw them into the flames.

If you’re like me, the problem with never thinking that what you do is good enough is that, aside from making you crazy, it paralyzes you. Weary of aiming for, but never achieving, Martha Stewart-levels of domesticity, you may give up cleaning altogether and live in squalor.

The danger is especially critical for those of us who regularly take off our clothes in public—by which I mean paint, write, dance, play the tuba, or engage in any of those vulnerable-making practices known as THE ARTS. The road to the unwritten novel, the unpainted canvas, and the undanced dance is paved with visions of perfection. On the other hand, the road to any accomplishment is paved with that hard to achieve combination of humility and self acceptance that allows the artist, the would-be domestic goddess, and the parent to get something done.

As with everything else, it’s a matter of balance (and alas, balance is so not my style). “Good enough” doesn’t mean perfect, but it doesn’t mean sloppy, either. To me it means “good enough for me,” for who I am, for the moderate gifts that the good fairy bestowed on me at birth. And, as I oscillate on that endless tightrope between perfection and slovenliness, “good enough” also means forgiving myself when I occasionally (frequently) fall off.



Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Housework


When Saint Benedict wrote the Rule for his monastery fifteen centuries ago, he instructed the monk in charge of the kitchen to regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. I have been trying to cultivate that attitude as I clean the house these days, but I’m not having much luck.

Every Tuesday, since housekeeping services were cancelled in our retirement community because of the virus, my husband and I clean the house. He vacuums; I dust. In our 50+ years of marriage, we have only done this a handful of times. Even in our graduate school years, when we ate “dark steaks” (meat sold cheaply because it was well past its prime), and mixed whole milk with the powdered kind to make it go farther, we always scraped enough  money to pay for a housekeeper.

It’s not that we didn’t know how to clean. My husband learned to vacuum before he learned to drive. During high school and college I spent every Saturday morning cleaning my parents’ house. I dusted the trophies that my mother had brought from Ecuador: the eight-foot-long blow gun with its quiver of curare-tipped arrows, and the ceremonial apron and bib made of softened tree bark and decorated with crumbling, once-colorful feathers. I had to time the vacuuming to whenever my father wasn’t practicing the violin, giving a private lesson, or composing at the piano. The worst was wiping the olive oil splatters off the stove and the kitchen’s linoleum floor, since I knew that by dinner time that evening, after yet another of my mother’s delicious sofregits, things would be as greasy as before.

Now, here I am again, dusting, polishing, scrubbing.  It’s not the same, of course. My teenage resentment is gone—it’s my own stuff I’m cleaning, and I can do the work when and how I like. At first, I even found a certain satisfaction in it. Finally, things were being done right. Take the bookcases. The typical cleaning lady dusts the spines of the books, pushes them towards the back, and dusts the exposed front part of the shelf. Instead, I removed each book, wiped its every surface, dusted the space behind it, and, when I was finished, aligned all the books precisely at the edge of the shelf.

This may be the sort of thing that Saint Benedict had in mind, but by the time it was over all I wanted was to build a fire in the front yard, and throw my books into it.

Things have gone downhill from there, as the novelty has worn off. Much as I try to treat every lampshade and every bowl as if it were a sacred object, my mind flits somewhere else, usually to the land of “how much longer is this going to take?” The same monkeys that during meditation hijack my focus away from the breath now whisper evilly in my ear, “It’s just a lampshade, just a bowl. Bo-ring!”

I wonder if Saint Benedict’s cellarer ever did manage to scour those piles of wooden bowls, those greasy cauldrons as worshipfully as if they were the vessels of the altar. If he did, he was a happier, more peaceful cellarer for it.

Yesterday I tried oiling the furniture as a meditation exercise. I rubbed every inch of the sideboard made by the ship’s carpenter on that long-ago Mississippi boat. I lubricated the elderly chests of drawers in the bedroom. Mostly I thought about my husband’s grandfather, who used to show up at our “married students apartment” in his enormous station wagon, with a gift of furniture from his attic. And I also thought about what Colette’s mother, Sido, used to say: “Whenever I spend a lot of time wiping my porcelain teacups, I can feel myself growing old.”

Next Tuesday, when it’s time to clean the kitchen, I’ll try to be more fully present in my work, to treat the sink and the microwave as if they were sacred vessels. I don’t expect to succeed right away, but then, I may well have months if not years to practice.



Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Day After Day


First thing every morning, I take Bisou outside.



Then I feed her and Telemann, and clean the litter box.



Next I make a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, and some toast. Then I ring the breakfast bell.



Some days the sameness of it all makes me want to pull out my hair...



but other days I am filled with gratitude.



Monday, May 4, 2020

Telemann Nights


If sleep had been an Olympic sport, in my youth I would have made the U.S. team. At night I would drink a cup of coffee in bed, turn out the light, and the next thing I knew it would be morning. I took naps like some take Valium--the more anxious I felt, the more I slept. Sleep was my weapon against boredom: I slept through movies and plays and, in my academic years, through faculty meetings, honors convocations, and graduations.

Now the most innocuous email keeps me awake. If I drink coffee or eat a single chocolate chip cookie after 1 p.m., I’m done for. Red wine, not to mention anything stronger, I gave up long ago because of its insomniac effects. But these days even the palest grigio keeps me up.

The first dozen times it happened, it shook my sense of self. Me, the bride of Morpheus, awake at midnight? Me, thrashing under the covers, counting sheep, meditating, slowing my breathing, taking melatonin, drinking chamomile—and all in vain? Without a full nine hours of oblivion, would I survive as anything other than a dried out husk, a living ghost?

But with practice you can get used to anything. Three nights out of seven, whether because of a belated cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or the phase of the moon,  I either can’t fall asleep or I wake up at midnight feeling oddly refreshed, my critical faculties intact, ready to cast a dispassionate eye on the human condition.

When that happens, I do not linger in the conjugal bed, but grab my glasses and my book, and tiptoe out of the room.  Hearing the door click shut, the cat Telemann comes miaowing out of the kitchen, tail held high like a drum major’s baton. He throws himself on his back at my feet, stretches to his full length of about two yards, and does a horizontal belly dance, shimmying and propelling himself across the floor like an upside-down cobra.

I walk into my study and lie on the cot that I keep there for these occasions. Telemann waits until I have arranged the afghan over my body, adjusted the reading lamp, and found my place in the book. When all is ready he jumps up on the spot between my face and the book, and purrs and turns, turns and purrs. Delicately, lest he take offence and return to the kitchen, I push him back a bit so I can see the page. If I do it right, he eventually lies down at waist level and settles to kneading the afghan with passion, his ten white toes spread in ecstasy.

The kneading phase lasts a long time, but gradually his eyes begin to close, and he dozes off. And I, lulled by the purring and kneading, soothed by the warm cat weight on my stomach, take off my glasses, put down my book, turn out the light, and fall asleep.



Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Barbering the Jade Plant


Remember Miss Piggy, who never ate anything she couldn’t lift? Although I like the jungly feeling that I get from being dwarfed by my houseplants, I apply Miss P’s standard to them—I won’t keep a plant that I can’t lift.

I have an ancient jade plant that has spent its life putting out one plump, thumb-shaped leaf after another, its stems thickening and lengthening until they draped over the sides of the pot, like an obese sort of ivy. I am a parsimonious waterer, especially of succulents, but over the years I had poured countless gallons of water into that plant, and most of that water was stored in those fat stems, those turgid leaves. The monster was nearly three feet across, and its branches hung so far down that I couldn’t set it on a table, but had to use a plant stand.

Yesterday I moved the jade plant from the bedroom to the sun room.  I had to carry it at arm’s length to avoid breaking off any branches, and by the time we reached our destination my arms were shaking. (Later I asked my spouse to weigh the plant: 25 pounds—heavier than Bisou, even though it was in a light-as-air plastic pot.)

I saw right away that it was taking up too much room, crowding my beloved red and pink cordyline on the right, and the equally beloved giant peace lily on the left. I considered  moving one of the rattan arm chairs out of the room, but there is no space anywhere in the cottage for an extra chair.

There was nothing for it but to prune the jade plant. I got my small pruning shears and a two-gallon bucket and went to work on those overgrown branches. They snapped with a satisfying pop, and I threw them into the bucket. When I was only a third of the way through the pruning, the bucket was full. Leaves and stems flew everywhere as I kept turning the pot, lopping off more branches. Was there no end to this plant?

There was. When the last drooping branch was off, my plant was transformed. Gone was the unkempt Medusa look, the disconsolate stems, the leaves which, despite my conscientious misting, had accumulated layers of dust. Instead, here was a perky, young-looking plant, its every stem pointing optimistically towards the sky. Where leaves and branches had crowded and choked each other, there was now plenty of what painters call negative space, into which the soon-to-come breezes of spring could waft unimpeded. The plant looked and seemed to feel the way I used to look and feel after an excellent haircut.

I gave the jade plant an extra thorough misting and left the room, the pruners still in my hand. Passing by the hall mirror I caught sight of my hair, which drooped down to my collar bones, forlorn, disheveled, and crying out for a trim. I looked down at the pruners ….



Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Wolf's Last Gift


Some years ago, a couple of biologists living in the northern wilds rescued a wolf cub. For the next decade and a half, the man and woman devoted themselves to giving the wolf, a female, the best, most wolfish life possible, and to documenting it.

If, like me, you have entertained fantasies of what it would be like to have a wolf of your own, the documentary that the couple made would nip them in the bud. The inside of their cabin looked like a war zone. Cushions were ripped out and strewn everywhere. The rustic furniture had been chewed to pieces. There were holes in the floor where the wolf had dug.  It’s not that she was in the least aggressive; she was simply…active.

Winter and summer, every single day, the couple hiked endless miles to satisfy their protégée’s compulsion to roam. Whenever they weren’t trudging up and down mountains, they were scavenging for road kill and other sources of meat for the wolf, who flourished under their care. The couple, however, looked more haggard and worn with each passing year.

When the wolf grew old and died, they didn’t bury her. Instead, they carried her body to the top of a nearby hill and laid her on the ground, the way a wild wolf’s remains would have been left. Then they set up a camera nearby and made a stop-action video of the ensuing months.

In late summer and into the fall, as flies and beetles crawled over it, the wolf’s body seemed to flatten and sink slowly into the ground. Scavengers made off with a few bits and pieces, and then the snow came and covered everything.

In the spring, after the snow melted, the carcass had disappeared, and in its place there grew a thick, bright green patch of young grass, in the shape of a wolf.



Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Zero-Sum Game


Remember those stories, from what seems like a century ago, about dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice? I fell for them, even though they were absurd. Why would dolphins want to enter those narrow canals when they have the entire Adriatic to disport themselves in?

But the reason that so many of us fell for the story is that it corroborates the consoling idea that Nature, given half a chance, immediately begins to recover. In fact, many cities are seeing cleaner air as a result of stay-at-home rules. Here in Vermont, with traffic noise drastically reduced, I’ve never heard so much bird song. It’s an anything but silent spring.

While coyotes roam the empty streets of San Francisco and Chicago, around our cottage the foxes are flourishing. Yesterday evening I watched one kill a squirrel right under our bird feeder, and head up the hill to his den across the road. I told myself that his wife and four children would eat a good dinner, but the violence of the killing, although it was over in seconds, stayed with me.

I stood at the sink washing my hands for the umpteenth time and repeating my hand-washing metta: may all beings be safe, may all beings be healthy, may all beings be content, may all beings live with ease. But for whose safety and contentment was I praying, the fox’s or the squirrel’s? I couldn’t have both: if the squirrel is safe, the fox goes hungry; for the fox to live with ease, the squirrel must die. And it doesn’t stop there: when the squirrel eats the acorn, the future oak perishes. When the fox dies, its flesh melts into the earth and feeds the tree.

Everything comes at a cost. The clean air of the city is paid for by the cab drivers with no fares, and by the mountains of packaging materials overflowing the dumps. In factory farms across the country, thousands of pigs are being reprieved, while the workers who would have butchered and processed them at the now-closed Smithfield plant in South Dakota sicken and grow poorer by the day.

Is there no way out of this zero-sum game? Not, I think, as long as there are so many of us on this earth. And even if by some miracle all the visions of Margaret Sanger, Bill McKibben, Al Gore, and Rachel Carson were to come true at once, death would still be the necessary condition of life.

But to be human means, almost by definition, living with the illusion that we are exempt from the turning of the wheel. In our frantic culture, normal life allows us to maintain that illusion. But in this spring’s eerie silence (except for the birds), distractions are harder to come by.

And so between watching the fox on the prowl, and worrying about the sick and the unemployed, I strive to accustom myself to the image of my flesh dissolving and my molecules gently dispersing for the benefit and nourishment of something or someone. Does this seem morbid and medieval? I don’t think it is. Rather, I suspect that getting comfortable with this vision is where true ease and contentment lie.



Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Leopard on Exhibit


I am one of those sleek, reasonably contented leopards that you see in modern, enlightened zoos.

I am not exactly caged in. My sleeping quarters are warm and comfortable. The outdoor exhibit comprises many acres of woods and fields over which I am free to roam. If I see another animal coming my way, I give it wide berth. We leopards are a solitary species. My range used to be much larger, though. I traveled regularly in search of food, and sometimes even went hundreds of miles to visit other leopards.

Every evening, my keepers leave food outside my door. We must never be in the same space, because I am a danger to them and they to me. But, like I said, I am reasonably contented. I don’t have to worry about poachers setting traps, or hyenas stealing my kills. And now that the public isn’t allowed to visit, I am not bothered by their inane comments about my spots.

I spend a lot of time grooming myself, getting rid of pollen and dead leaves, and hunting for ticks. I take naps. I force myself to chew my food thoroughly, to make mealtimes last longer. Every day I roar over the ether at other leopards I used to know, but their voices break up in the distance, and it’s hard to know what they’re saying. Occasionally I make marks on tree trunks with my claws.

I look at the sky. I smell the earth. I watch the sunset and wait for the keeper who brings the food. Did I say that I am reasonably contented? We leopards are a solitary species.*

*In case you find this confusing: the retirement community where I live has prudently closed the campus. No visitors may come in, no residents may go out.  

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Hair in the Corona Era


If a woman blow-dries her hair and nobody sees her, does she still look good?

What about make-up, deodorant, real clothes instead of pajamas, foundation garments—are they worth the trouble these days? For myself, so far I have answered in the affirmative, mostly because I don’t want to frighten myself every time I pass in front of a mirror. As for the effect of these decisions on my spouse of 50+ years, it would take an extraordinary gesture—such as shaving my head, say—for him to notice. And even then he might be too much of a gentleman to comment.

The advertisers who think they know all there is to know about me have been bombarding me lately with products designed to color gray hair at home. They’ve got the age bit right, and the graying bit, but they don’t know that I don’t color my hair-- so much for their omniscience. It’s not that I have philosophical objections to covering up gray hair, but I have always worried that if I did, and then got sick and was unable to keep after the roots, etc. I would emerge from the ordeal suddenly an old woman, a brutal shock to my friends and family. I would rather accustom them gradually and gently to the ravages of time on my appearance.

Color aside, the hair issue looms greater with each passing day. My layers are growing out, and there are some weird bits at the back of my neck that stick out no matter what I do. It’s time for a haircut, but that’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Like many of my generation, for years I went to bed every night with twenty-seven brush rollers in my hair, and to this day I find it impossible to simply ignore the stuff that, virus or no virus, inexorably grows out of my scalp.

I considered shaving my head, but gave up the idea when I remembered Colette’s opinion that, like a ripe fruit, the mature visage benefits from a bit of foliage around it. After researching “dreadlocks for white girls” on Google, I abandoned that possibility because I might be accused of cultural appropriation, plus it looks labor intensive, and requires something called “hair wax.” Besides, judging from the photos, dreads on white people look best if the wearer’s chest and arms are covered in tattoos.

There remains the Buddhist choice: to let go, surrender, practice non-attachment to style and shape, and let my hair grow, in the words of the musical, “down to here, down to there, down to where it stops by itself.” But long hair, if given its freedom, can be an inconvenience and a safety hazard. Already it gets in my mouth when I play the recorder, dips into my soup, and gets tangled in my eyeglasses, hearing aids, and face masks. If it grows long enough, I risk getting it caught in doors or, biblically, in tree branches, like Absalom. Should I ever ride again in a convertible, it might strangle me, like Isadora Duncan’s scarf.

One option remains: braids—worn hanging down the back, schoolgirl-style; rolled into ear muffs, like Princess Leia; or pulled across the top of the head like a tiara. However, all these styles need really long hair. Will the corona era last that long? Who knows? But whenever it finally ends, we will emerge from our caves, dens, eyries, burrows, and lairs and cast our eyes over each other, and know what survival looks like.



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Chicken Shortage

This spring, hatcheries all across the United States have run out of inventory, and baby chicks are rarer than hens’ teeth. When I heard this news on a rainy afternoon two days ago it brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t missing the sun, or the company of my fellow humans, or life as it used to be. I was missing my hens.

For years, they were the hub of my backyard ecology. Thanks to them, nothing ever went to waste. “Give it to the hens!” we said about everything from burned toast to apple cores, carrot tops, and curdled milk. And, magnanimously, persistently, the hens turned our refuse into eggs.

But they didn’t just give us eggs. Their nitrogen-rich droppings transformed the spoiled hay that I used for their bedding into the most exquisite of composts, which they turned and chopped and aerated all winter long as they scratched looking for seeds. In the spring, all I had to do was dump the stuff on the garden and (pretty much) watch the veggies grow.

Those hens were my friends. They were Buff Orpingtons--big, cream-colored birds with a placid disposition. They didn’t lay as abundantly as some of the more flighty breeds, but on the other hand they didn’t let Vermont winters get to them. They would rush to greet me when I entered their yard, peering up at me first with one eye and then the other, in that inimitable chicken way. And in the evening, when I went to collect the eggs and close the coop against the fox, the fisher, and the weasel, they would purr sleepily on their roosts. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the handle of the egg basket in my fingers, and hear the cluckings and feather fluffings as the girls settled for the night.

What impelled me, a city child, to keep hens and grow vegetables? I used to think that it had started with the 1974 oil embargo, when the price of everything, from gas to groceries, shot up overnight and it dawned on me that my loved ones and I were at the mercy of world events. I, who had never so much as watered a houseplant, bought a packet of tomato seeds and pushed them one by one into the packed dirt at the side of the house, right under the eaves where, at the first rainstorm, the few seedlings that had sprouted promptly drowned.

I went back to buying tomatoes in the supermarket, oblivious to the fact that the seeds of self-sufficiency had been planted in my head long before, by my mother’s stories.

“During the war [the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39],” she used to tell me, “before your father and I met, he and his family lived in Barcelona and almost died of starvation, because they couldn’t get food in the city. But we, [meaning she and her parents and siblings, who lived in one of those now-rare diversified farms] we  always had food. Even though we were near the front, and there were bombardments and many dangers from retreating soldiers, the chickens kept laying and the rabbits kept having litters. We even had a pig that we slaughtered in the fall. And the garden gave us cabbages and kale in the winter, and melons, eggplants, and tomatoes in the summer. And the trees made olives and almonds, and after a rain we children would go out to hunt for snails….”

This is the lesson I retained: depend on the supermarket for your groceries, and if something really bad happens you’ll go hungry. Grow your own food, and you’ll be o.k. During most of my adult life, therefore, whenever zoning regulations allowed it, I kept chickens.

So I understand where today’s would-be chicken keepers are coming from, but I hope they know what they’re getting into: hens need a coop to shelter in, and a securely-fenced yard in which to sun themselves, and they won’t produce if they’re fed on grass and kitchen waste alone. (Despite my self-sufficiency aspirations, I used to have to supplement my hens’ diet with commercial feed.) What hens don’t need in order to lay eggs is a rooster. In fact, given the male chicken’s libido, if he has fewer than at least fifteen wives to share the burden, he will stress them out with his amorous assaults.

If kept safe and satisfied, a hen will lay eggs for as long as five years, but she will eventually go through menopause. Do these new chick buyers have an exit plan for their aged birds? And when they first bring home those cheeping balls of fluff, do they realize that, absent a mother hen, day-old chicks need a heat lamp to keep them alive and lively? That you have to teach them to drink by dipping their beaks in water? And that they will dive in and promptly drown if that water is more than an inch deep?

If you are one of the lucky souls able to get chickens to cheer you and feed you in this depressing time, I applaud your impulse toward self-sufficiency. I wish you happy birds, overflowing egg baskets, and the illusion of security afforded by the knowledge that, if worst comes to worst, you can always make an omelette. May you and your flock rejoice in each other for years to come. And if you want any advice on poultry, I’ll be glad to oblige.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Fox Tales


The red fox and I are on the same morning schedule: between 9 and 10 he hunts, all flame and cleverness, and I practice the recorder. Yesterday, as I was doing scales, he pranced out of the woods across the road and caught one of the obese gray squirrels that gorge on spilled seed under our bird feeder. There was a high-speed tussle and somehow the squirrel, who must have had some muscle under all that fat, got away. The fox shrugged, and trotted off in the direction of the lake (for you non-Vermonters, that’s Lake Champlain).

Later, as I wrestled with an ornery passage of Telemann, I glanced out the window and there was the fox again, headed back towards the woods, with not one, but two squirrels in his mouth.

These were not infant squirrels, but full-grown, well-nourished ones. How do I know there were two? Because, due to the weight of his catch, the fox was trotting slowly, and I had plenty of time to stare, blink, stare again, and verify that there were two luxurious squirrel tails flopping out of his jaws. Have you ever watched a snake dislocate its jaw in order to swallow its prey? Then you have an idea of how wide my fox was holding his mouth.

How did he kill two squirrels? It seems impossible that he would have killed them both at the same time, so did he kill #1 and then see #2, put down #1, kill #2, come back, and retrieve #1? And why two squirrels? You’d think that a single plump one would suffice for such a well-muscled, shiny-coated fox as this one. Was my fox hoarding squirrels?

I still don’t know the answer to the first question. But I think I know the answer to the second. Foxes in Vermont mate in January and February. With a gestation of 49 to 53 days, it is reasonable to assume that my fox was taking the squirrels to his wife and children holed up in their den in the woods.

Now I worry about them all. How many babies are there? What if the father fails to find food? What if he gets run over while crossing the road? I’ll help him by keeping the bird feeders full so there’s plenty of spilled seed for the squirrels. As for getting run over, not only does the road between my house and the woods have a 15 mile/hour speed limit, but now that we humans are hunkered in our own dens, the traveling fox is probably safer than he has ever been.

This morning, at the appointed time, he swung past our house in the direction of the lake. I saw him crouch down and start to go after something. But he changed his mind, turned his head, looked at me, and trotted off. On his return trip he had something small and black in his jaws.