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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Here is what I think about these days when I feel isolated and frustrated:

1936. A turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona: living room, dining room, four bedrooms. A pared-down kitchen, no ice-box. One bathroom. No hot water or central heat. In this apartment live my father, his parents, his two younger sisters, and his older brother with his wife and two baby boys. And the maid, an orphan whom my grandparents took in many years ago. She sleeps on a cot in the kitchen.

The Spanish Civil War has broken out. My grandfather is an accountant in a cement company, but construction in all of Spain has come to a halt, so there isn’t much work for him. My grandmother sends the maid out to the shops every day, and makes do with what she brings back: bread and garlic and maybe a bit of hake or cod.

The older son used to have a job, but now has lymphoma and grows weaker by the day. Doctors and nurses are at the front, stitching wounds and amputating limbs, so he is cared for by his wife and his mother. His wife is a Mexican citizen. Like the Israelites smearing blood on their doors so the angel would spare their firstborns, the family has nailed a Mexican flag on the door of the apartment to deter the anarchist gangs that roam the city.

My father’s sisters are fifteen and twelve, and have to be kept mostly indoors because the streets are rife with soldiers. My father is twenty-two. Ever since his mother sat him on her lap and placed his fingers on the keyboard of the upright piano, music has been his life. A violinist, he is starting to make his way professionally.

Of all the family, he is the most endangered, more than the dying brother or the pubescent girls. Catalonia is in the grip of leftist furor. Centuries of deprivation have stoked hatred among the poor towards everyone and everything that smacks even remotely of privilege: the wealthy and the middle class, the great landowners and the farmers with a single field and a mule, and the church—priests good and bad, monks, nuns, former altar boys, and members of a Catholic organizations such as the Children of Mary.

In high-school my father belonged to the Children of Mary, along with the rest of his class. This now makes him subject to summary arrest and execution. One night his best friend, hiding in his own parents’ apartment, is dragged out from under the sofa and put on a truck headed for Montjuich, the hill overlooking the city where dozens are shot every day at dawn. But my father’s friend is charming, and on the way he strikes a conversation with the guard, who lowers the tailgate and lets him jump off.

As in every civil war, one is at the mercy of disaffected neighbors, disappointed rivals, the spiteful, the petty, and the just plain evil, any one of whom may take it into his or her head to nod in the direction of one’s hiding place. So my father has to stay in the apartment 24/7. Not only can he not go outdoors, he can’t stand on the balcony or close to a window. Not only may he not play the violin--that would give him away immediately--he has to speak softly and tread lightly, lest the downstairs tenants hear a man’s voice and footsteps while my grandfather and the elder son are out of the house.

What do they do, the ten of them, day after day in that apartment? There is a piano on which the girls practice their scales. There is a radio, but reception is poor. Otherwise there is nothing:  no TV, no wi-fi, no working telephone, no books or magazines other than those already on the shelves. There are frequent blackouts.

There is always prayer, and they all say the rosary together every evening. And for my father there are buttons to paint, for a little income. It is fashionable at the time for women to wear large painted buttons made of tagua, an ivory-like plant material. So my young father sits by the window (but not too close) with a slender brush and some paints, and invents tiny bucolic scenes for women to wear on their chests. What, at twenty-two, does he make of women, now that the only ones he sees are his mother, the maid, his sisters, and his brother’s young wife in the bedroom next to his?

Food is the great issue. How to get it, how to apportion it. The decisions are in my grandmother’s hands. My grandfather needs nourishment so he can continue to work, as does the maid. The girls are still growing. The daughter-in-law is pregnant or nursing. Now that his cancer is progressing, the older son doesn’t want to eat much, but he must be encouraged nevertheless. And my father—how to satisfy the hunger of a twenty-two-year-old man? Fortunately, he doesn’t get any exercise, so that helps.

At night the family gathers around the table, a candle flickering in the center because the electricity has been cut off.

“Here, take this bread. I’m not feeling very hungry.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s yours. Please eat it…”

They go to bed early to keep warm, but before retiring they file into the kitchen, one by one, and down several glasses of water. This is to give their stomachs the illusion of fullness, so they can fall asleep.

The war lasts three years.

My father, aged 21, the year before the war

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Round and Round the Bodhi Tree

To reach enlightenment, the Buddha sat and meditated for forty-nine days under a fig tree, later called the bodhi tree. My meditation group now has its own version of the bodhi, a big, scaly-barked, winter-bare sycamore. And instead of sitting under it, we walk around it.

For the last five years, the group met in one of the buildings in our retirement community. We would gather there two mornings a week for meditation stripped to its bare essentials: other than the chime that I rang to signal the beginning and the end of twenty-five minutes of sitting, there was no ritual: no reading, chanting, or even a candle. Just a silence that felt full rather than empty.

The corona virus put an end to that, at a time when we needed meditation more than ever. But since we’re still allowed to go outdoors, we decided to give walking meditation a try.  

Yesterday morning, we met by the sycamore. The weather was brisk, but my fellow meditators are hardy Vermonters, and they showed up booted, coated, gloved and hatted. We spread out around the tree, at six –foot intervals. Feeling slightly foolish, I rang my chime and started walking. How, I wondered, would we find the right pace, not too fast but not too slow? Obviously we couldn’t shut our eyes, but where should we look? And what about the breath?

Somehow, by the time we’d gone around once, all these questions had answered themselves. There is something self-regulating about the rhythm that walking imposes on the legs, the arms, the breath. Without thinking about it we managed to keep our distance from each other. Nobody tripped or got dizzy, and we spontaneously matched each other’s pace.

I kept my eyes on the ground, put one foot in front of the other, and felt more focused than I do during sitting meditation. Also: I have never in my life either talked to a tree or been addressed by one. But this time, circling the sycamore like a planet, I became subtly aware of its presence. Was it saying something? Probably not. But I was feeling something, and that is what matters.

I kept the walk to fifteen minutes, and when it was over people thought that we should increase it to twenty minutes and add a third day, because it felt good and we are all in such need to be in each other’s presence.

We dispersed until the next time, but before leaving I went to the sycamore and , disobeying the six-foot rule, put my hand on its scaly bark.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Telemann's Excellent Adventure

Who says that the cloistered life lacks excitement? Today, for example, we lost Telemann, our cat. He vanished into thin air, like a puff of gray smoke. I heard him miaowing from what sounded like the bottom of a well, but there are no wells in our itsy bitsy cottage.

There are, however, a number of closets, into which he rushes whenever we open the door so he can hang out among the boots and sharpen his claws on the suitcases (to ensure we won’t go on a trip?). So I checked the closets first, but he wasn’t there. I looked under the bed, even though I knew there was no reason for him to be sending out distress calls when he’s perfectly able to navigate the bed skirts on his own.

Telemann! I called (he often, but not always, responds to his name). Then, from far away, like the cry of a lost soul: miaowww, followed by an eerie silence. Maybe he was in the cabinet under the sink, with the trash can and the dishwasher soap. Or in the cabinet with the cast iron pans. Or in the big drawer with the Tupperware. Feeling slightly crazed, I checked the oven. Nothing.

Then a single, piteous, I’m-dying-come-save-me, miaow!

I flew out of the kitchen and rechecked all the closets. I ran into the mudroom and looked behind the standing freezer, and then, absurdly, into his litter box. I opened the door into the garage, where he has never been. Telemann, I called, keeping my voice as light as if I were singing a Mozart aria (n.b., it’s almost impossible to keep your voice light when you’re stressed).

(pianissimo): miaow.

By now there were two of us cannoning around the house, calling, slamming doors, exclaiming “where IS that darn cat!”, re-checking closets. Even—horrors—looking outside, where he has never set foot. But there’s always a first time….

I was checking the top of six-foot bookshelf off which Telemann routinely knocks the box of Christmas ornaments, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by nostalgia for my long-dead German Shepherd, Wolfie. Without ever having been trained, he used to find my errant hens and hold them down with his great jaws until I arrived to set them free, annoyed but unharmed. If Wolfie had been with us, I would have said “Find Telemann!” and in less than a minute he would have pinpointed the cat’s location with Teutonic precision. But with Wolfie in his grave, all I had by way of dog help was Bisou, who followed me from room to room wagging her tail, looking up at me with her liquid carnelian-colored eyes, wondering what had come over me.

Our washer and dryer are tightly wedged in a nook in the laundry room. They are four feet high, and there is a shelf about eighteen inches above them where, these days, I keep a gross of toilet paper (let me know if you run out, and I’ll mail you some). I once lost a sock in the space between the appliances and the wall behind them, and the only way I could reach it was to clamber on top of the dryer, squeeze under the shelf, and retrieve the sock with one of those grabber gizmos.

There was total silence in the laundry room, and I didn’t particularly want to repeat the clambering maneuver, and besides, what in the world would Telemann be doing down there? But there was nowhere else to look, so I clambered and squeezed and peered into the darkness and sure enough, there was Telemann among the dust bunnies, looking betrayed.

With some mighty tugs, my spouse pulled the dryer away from the wall, and Telemann oozed out like a wisp of fog.

And how are things at your house?

Monday, March 16, 2020

Words to Wash By

Here are some alternatives to the Happy Birthday song which, as you know if you haven’t been living on Mars for the last two weeks, we’re supposed to sing twice while washing hands to ensure that we scrub for the mandated twenty seconds. It’s annoying enough to put up with the dry skin caused by all this washing, but who wants to sing Happy Birthday a zillion times a day?

Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist teacher, suggests that we replace Happy Birthday with some version of a loving kindness meditation, such as:

May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe
May all beings be content
May all beings live with ease.

Say it twice, and you’ve done your twenty seconds.

I like that the prayer includes not just me, or my family and friends, or humanity in general, but all beings--the fox and the weed, the bee and the stone. It is such a sensible set of wishes, too, progressing logically from the essential to the contingent. Health comes first, since if you’re sick nothing else matters, followed by safety—you may be the picture of health, but you won’t enjoy it if you’re anxious all the time. I also love the modesty of the wishes expressed. The prayer says nothing about happiness, but settles for the more humble, attainable, and reliable contentment, and ends with the wish that all beings may live with ease—not successfully, or interestingly, or excitingly, but simply with ease.

What does living “with ease” mean, exactly? I imagine myself floating around the house in flowing garments, watering the plants, brushing the cat, and facing with smiling equanimity whatever unimaginable trials The Virus may bring. It’s something to aim for anyway, which is why it’s good to repeat the prayer twenty times a day.

I have also timed, for your convenience, an abridged version of a prayer by Saint Teresa of Avila, which soothes me with its rhythm. Say it twice, and then rinse:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing,
God alone is sufficient.

On a more secular, ecological note, and especially if you are stuck in quarantine, you could recite twice this bit of loveliness by Emily Dickinson (I’ve cut one line to fit the time):

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Dame Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchorite—she self-quarantined with her cat in a cell attached to the church—and lived through the Black Death and other horrors, so she knew what she was talking about. Here is her capsule of stubborn optimism:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

This one you have to say three times to hit the twenty seconds, but feel free to mutter it throughout the day, if you’re feeling stressed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Static Season

From the window by my desk I can see my neighbors, who range in age from 65 to 95, tromping through the woods, gathering sap from the sugar maples. It’s sugaring season in Vermont, which means that the temperature still drops below freezing at night—which means that static season is still with us.

In my war against static electricity, I have enlisted all the weapons suggested by the internet homemaking goddesses. Since dry air makes the problem worse, I keep the humidifier going full tilt day and night. I pour generous quantities of white vinegar into the washing machine, keep wool balls in the dryer (which never fail to get lost inside pant legs), and remove clothes while they are still damp. But nothing works very well. (Dryer sheets supposedly help, but my green conscience prevents me from using them.)

My poor dog, Bisou, has been shocked so many times that she flinches when I reach down to pet her, especially if she’s lying on her favorite, an ancient afghan that I crocheted out of polyester yarn before I knew that the material attracts static like nothing else on earth. Her red-gold hair stands up corona-like all around her as I draw near, and I have trained myself to touch metal before I touch her.

There are mornings when my clothes stick to me as if I were heading onto a gale. Should I idiotically decide to put on a skirt, it gloms onto me like ivy on a dying oak, and clicks in protest if I try to separate it from my thighs. The household pundits on the web say that spraying water on oneself helps, but in my experience this only works if I drench myself until I’m dripping.

But even worse than clingy clothes is the hair magnetism. If I sit down anywhere in the house, I get covered in long red strands from Bisou, short gray and white wisps from Telemann, and my own brown and white contributions. When I stand up, my legs are a palimpsest that reveals who’s been sitting where.

Why don’t I brush my animals, you ask? But I do! Faithfully! Every week I compost handfuls of dog and cat hair (I used to put it out for the birds to use in their nests, but I have learned that pet hair holds moisture, and can get tangled in the legs of baby birds, cutting off circulation). However, regardless of how much I brush there’s always more--I suspect that at least fifty percent of the nutrition in pet food goes to making hair--and it homes in on me with the kind of determination only seen in lemmings headed for the sea.

Why don’t I use a lint brush? I do, but only on special occasions and within five seconds prior to leaving the house. If I used it every time I get hair on my pants, I would go through several of those sticky paper rolls every day.

People who know me probably think that I mostly wear gray, or that grayish/brownish/yellowish shade known to wildlife biologists as agouti. But what looks agouti to the world is in fact black with a frosting of pet hair. Fully three-quarters of the garments I own are black as midnight. That, however, may change soon, when I grow weary of plucking, picking, and brushing and, choosing to join those whom I cannot beat, get rid of my sober and, on a good day, slimming black clothes and replace them with items in gray, tan, taupe, ash, khaki, oatmeal, camel, fawn, or mud.

Here’s a story about static electricity, from the era before safety belts and bucket seats: one cold day in New Jersey, a friend’s elderly mother, wearing polyester slacks, went for a ride with her husband. As she slid across the front bench seat to sit next to him, she felt a shock and said, “Honey, please remind the mechanic to fix those shock absorbers.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Reply All

Is there an electronic-age version of Amy Vanderbilt out there? I'm in urgent need of coaching in email manners, specifically Reply All.

Say I want to send a bread-and-butter email to someone who had me over for wine- and-cheese. Should I share my message with others who also attended? My instinct is to only write to the hostess, to avoid clogging up my friends’ mailboxes with my gushings, but then I worry that they, whose exquisitely worded thank-yous have been ricocheting through the Cloud, will think that I am forgetful and/or ungrateful.

In fact, the dilemma begins before the w-and-c event, with the original invitation. Even if this is in the form of a group email, my reflex again is to reply to the hostess exclusively, she being the one who needs to know how many mouths to feed. But it occurs to me that perhaps she would like each of us to share our responses in hopes that this will generate esprit de corps and ensure a decent turnout. So just in case, I hit Reply All.

Then there is the Get Well Soon email. A group of women gets together for dinner once a month, but this time one of us has come down with a cold, and emails to say that she won’t be able to join us. I prepare to send condolences, and to urge her to take care of herself, drink plenty of fluids, etc., ending with assurances that she will be sadly missed by everyone. As I sit down to compose my message, I notice that there are already half a dozen emails in my inbox from other group members expressing identical sentiments.

I write the email, but when my finger is poised over the Reply All button, doubt assails me. Does anyone other than the sick woman really need to read my caring clich├ęs, my hackneyed healing thoughts, my dull albeit heartfelt wishes for a quick recovery? On the other hand, if I don’t share my message with the entire group, will they think me lacking in compassion?

The temptation to click Reply All stems from its usefulness in certain situations, as when individual members of my dog-walking group write to all the others saying whether they plan to brave the sub-zero wind chill or stay home, thus avoiding the distressing spectacle of a single walker with dog, waiting in vain for the rest to show up. From there, it is a slippery slope to hitting Reply All all the time, just to play it safe.

I don’t know about you, but life often feels like an unruly horde of dilemmas, a herd of bulls determined to impale me on their horns. This morning, even before I could make coffee, I had to face a life-and-death decision about a tiny field mouse (velvety black fur on the back, silky white belly, one-and-a-half inches of mousy perfection) that the cat Telemann was tormenting. Telemann is an indoor cat, and this was the first mouse he had ever seen, let alone caught. He was batting it merrily all over the house, looking blissfully in the zone and embodying the Platonic ideal of catness as the mouse twitched in agony.

What to do? On the one hand, I wanted to end the mouse’s suffering, but on the other, who was I to stand between Telemann and the instincts with which the Universe had endowed him? I dithered sleepily for a while and, in the end, opted for the coward’s way out. I prepared Telemann’s breakfast and called him. He dropped the mouse and came running, and while he was eating I swept up the now thankfully expired little creature and threw him out into the woods for the fox to find.