Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Elegy for a Bird Feeder

 The finches (purple, house, and gold), along with their dun-colored wives and children, are gone. So are the titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, mourning doves, and woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and red-bellied). Also the rose-breasted grosbeak couple, the cardinal family, several tribes of unidentifiable (by me) sparrows, and all the chipmunks. Even the squirrels have fled. 

A bear was seen recently in our retirement community, and I had to take down the sunflower seed feeder, the suet cage (which needed to be refilled every day), and the squirrel baffle. If I had been living on my own, I would have taken my chances with the bear, but living where we do, I felt that I needed to be prudent. 

Taking down the feeders was one of the low points in a not-so-easy summer. The bear’s appearance coincided with the fledging of dozens of finches in the trees nearby. Four or five baby birds at a time would perch on the feeder, scrambling and fluttering on top of each other for their beleaguered parent to stuff seeds down their gullets. For hours after I took down the feeders the birds kept coming, and I could hear the insistent zik-zik of the young begging for food. I spent the afternoon in the bedroom, to get away from the sight and sound of so much disappointment. 

Then, suddenly, they gave up. Our yard is now bird-, squirrel-, and chipmunk-free. The cat Telemann, who used to spend his days leaping from windowsill to windowsill, lashing his tail and flinging himself at the glass in the eternal hope of catching one of the critters, now sleeps his life away. Sometimes—not often--a bird comes to the birdbath, drinks for a couple of seconds, and takes off. 

And sometimes a bee from the hives across the street perches on the rim and sips a drop or two. This is cause for much excitement—look, a bee!—kind of how you would feel if a unicorn emerged from the woods and approached your house. I had never thought or cared about the drinking habits of bees, but I do now. 

Still, talk about downsizing! After I gave up my goats and chickens, I assuaged my urge to nurture by feeding birds and squirrels. Now I’m reduced to offering water to bees. But bees, I remind myself, are better than nothing. 

The universe is doing its best to teach me lessons in non-attachment, but I am not a good student. I can’t wait for the first frost, when the trees turn colors and the bear goes to sleep in his cave, and I can put out the feeders again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Pep Rally

 Birmingham, Alabama. A Friday afternoon in September. It is the end of my first week in my new American school, and I am at my locker, about to go home. The hallways are deserted, but it’s probably because everybody has already left for the weekend. A girl comes by. “You can’t go home now!” she says. “There’s a pep rally in the gym! Hurry up, you’ll be late!”

It’s been a week full of weirdness. The weirdness of something called “homeroom.” The weirdness of the Pledge of Allegiance (from which I, a citizen of Spain, am excused). The weirdness of diagramming sentences. And the unspeakable weirdness of boys in the class. 

And now this pep rally. What is “pep”? What is “rally”? 

I find my way to the gym, push open the door, and am blown back by a wall of sound so loud it nearly knocks me over. Never in my thirteen years, and certainly not in my previous schools (run by nuns, for future ladies) have I heard such a din. The entire school is here, even the priests, nuns, and lay teachers, all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. There are repeated “rah’s” and “go’s” and “yay’s,” but are these expressions of anger, alarm, or what? Why are they raising their fists in the air? Is this a political demonstration? 

The noise is so loud that I give up trying to understand and stand there dumbly, sure that everybody is wondering what is wrong with me. In the center of the commotion stands a line of girls dressed in flared knee-length green skirts and thick white sweaters with big green letters on them. Grinning maniacally and yelling “rah,” and “go” and “yay,” they shake what look like mop heads made of green and white strips of paper. Periodically they give an extra loud yell and jump in unison, pumping their arms, arching their backs, and making their skirts float up. 

Behind the girls is an even more bizarre sight: a group of what I assume are boys with helmets covering their heads and part of their faces, grotesquely swollen shoulders, and capri pants. They are dressed in white, with big green numbers on their shirts.

 Then Father H., the principal, steps to the microphone and the yelling subsides. He makes the sign of the cross and the girls drop their mops to the floor as their skirts settle around their calves. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” Father H. intones. I recognize the prayer, so I say to myself “Dios te salve, María…” But what are we praying for? 

When it’s over I walk home in the amazing Alabama heat, glad to be away from the noise and the alien excitement, but feeling strange and alone. I’m worried that I never figured out what the pep rally was about, and that I will perhaps be asked about it on a test. For the moment, though, my brain unclenches, and I bask in the temporary relief of not hearing, not speaking, not trying to understand English. 

At home, I kiss my mother, go into my room, and turn on the radio—very softly because my father is in the living room practicing. Buddy Holly is singing that it’s raining in his heart. I can understand that. It means that he is sad because the girl he loves has gone away. (Will an American boy ever be sad because of me?) 

Then comes the mournful refrain: “Oh misery, misery, what’s gonna become of me?” And my brain, ceaselessly working to make sense of the strange world in which I find myself, concludes that Buddy must be saying “Oh, Missouri, Missouri”-- which is a state somewhere in the middle of this big, confusing country where that cruel girl has gone and left him all alone, like me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

My Parents' Wild and Sexy New Year's Eve

 My violinist father always worked on holidays. Even on Christmas Day, while the rest of us were still eating the capons that my maternal grandmother had sent to Barcelona from her farm, my father would pull out his pocket watch, drain his glass of champagne, and say, “time for me to go.” He would go around the table and kiss his mother, his father, his two sisters, my mother, and me and, after admonishing my mother not to wait up for him, pick up his violin and vanish into the night. 

The year I was eight, a concert was cancelled and he was free on New Year’s Eve. Since he worked outside the house most nights of the week, my mother thought it would be exciting, instead of going out, to celebrate by staying home. She explained to me that because this celebration, which she called by its French name, réveillon, would happen at midnight, I would not be included, but I could participate in the preparations. 

In the early December dusk we set out to buy the food. First, we went to the fruit seller to buy grapes, because in Spain on New Year’s Eve you need to eat one grape with each stroke of midnight, for luck. Then we went to the xarcuteria, to buy foie gras, xorisso, ham sliced so thin you could almost see through it, and five different kinds of olives. Next we stopped at the wine store for a bottle of Catalan bubbly. On the way to the bakery we passed the church. A gypsy woman with a baby, her hand outstretched, huddled on the steps. My mother gave her some coins, and as we walked away with our net bag bursting with good things to eat she said to always remember how lucky we were to have food, and a house to live in. 

The réveillon would take place not at the regular dining room table, but at the smaller, more intimate brazier table. This was a round table with a wooden framework that supported the brazier a few inches above the floor. My mother would decant hot coals into the brazier and cover the table with a floor-length tablecloth made of green felt. On cold afternoons she would pull up a chair, lift the cloth over her lap, rest her feet on the edge of the brazier, and sew or read in comfort in our otherwise unheated apartment. For the réveillon, she covered the felt cloth with a smaller, white Belgian-lace cloth. 

The most important aspect of the réveillon wasn’t food, but romance. She and my father had to match the elegance of the tablecloth, the starched napkins, the candles (which we normally reserved for brownouts, a frequent occurrence in the years after the Spanish Civil War), and the cut-glass goblets. 

I desperately wanted to see this part of the preparations, so well before midnight my mother put on her black, floor-length evening dress. It was fitted at the waist, and fell straight to the floor with a pleat at the back. The décolletage was modest, and the narrow sleeves reached to her elbow (my family was as conservative in dress as it was liberal in displays of affection). She wore pearls around her neck and her white fur stole around her shoulders. The latter was not for show. In winter, whenever she wasn’t sitting at the brazier my mother was always cold. 

She had my father dress up too. The only hitch was that my father’s dress clothes—his tailcoat and white piqué vest and bow tie—were also his work clothes, but he nevertheless looked romantic in them. For a moment they stood smiling side by side in front of the brazier table so I could admire them, and then they sent me to bed. 

How is it that I remember, as clearly as if I had been there, my mother and father drinking champagne and feeding each other grapes with each stroke of midnight, and then dancing to my father’s favorite slow foxtrot (“Night and day, you are the one…”), her head on his shoulder, his mustache tickling her neck? It must have been the glow on their faces as they let me see them in their glory, which even to my childish eyes held all the rest—the wine, the candles, the grapes, and the dance.



Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Of Eggs and Hens

When I said goodbye to my little flock and had to resort to getting my eggs cold from the supermarket cooler instead of warm from the nest, I made sure to choose cartons that said that the hens who laid those eggs were “free-range” or, at the very least, “cage-free.” 

Temple Grandin, that patron saint of farm animals, writes that battery hens are the most mistreated of all livestock. The suffering of cattle in feedlots is nothing compared to the misery of hens imprisoned in tight individual cages, deprived of natural light and food, forced to lay without regard for seasonal rhythms, and slaughtered after a couple of years. 

There was a time in my life when I made mayonnaise from scratch, in the blender, with garlic and olive oil, and eggs from my own lovelies. But when I was reduced to buying it at the store, I forgot to think about the hens whose eggs were used in its manufacture. Then one day, reading labels, I found mayonnaise made with eggs from cage-free hens, from the biggest producer on the planet, Hellmann’s. 

Not that cage-free hens lead an idyllic life. They don’t run around on grass, peck at bugs, or preen their feathers in the sun. They spend their lives in huge rooms filled with hundreds of their peers, making the most horrific din. Still, it’s far better than those cages. 

I bought the jar of Hellmann’s and took it home. It tasted like ordinary mayo, but I felt better as I spread it on my bread. Then, on my next trip to the store, I saw a new product on the shelf, a mayonnaise dressing from the same manufacturer that, the label said, was made with olive oil. 

I am a devotee of olive oil. As a child, one of my favorite foods was “pa amb oli i xocolata,” the all-time Catalan after-school snack: a thick slice of crusty bread sprinkled with dark, aromatic olive oil, accompanied with a chunk of almost-bitter chocolate. (If you’ve never tried it, it beats Hershey’s by a mile.) 

When the AMA discovered the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil ranked first on its list of panaceas. A powerful antioxidant, the oil is supposed to be good for the heart, the brain, the gut, and the immune system. It fights infection, lessens the risk of strokes and certain cancers, combats pain and inflammation, helps prevent diabetes and, because it keeps blood sugar levels stable, may help you lose weight. Not surprisingly, it’s even good for your mood. 

I was in the kitchen putting away the olive oil mayo when I realized that I hadn’t checked whether its eggs also came from cage-free hens. What if I had bought mayonnaise that was good for me but bad for the hens? 

The days are long gone when one could go to the store and choose stuff based on whether it looked good and how much it cost. I had barely mastered the secrets of tuna casserole when I learned that most of the foods available in the supermarket were bursting with possibly lethal substances. The first culprit, identified in the 1970s, was salt (would give you heart attacks), followed in the 1980s by fat (ditto, plus you would look awful), followed by sugar (pure poison, and ubiquitous), followed by hormones (would give you breasts if you were a man, cancer if you were a woman), pesticides, and the growing awareness of what our food system was doing to the welfare of animals. 

Trips to the supermarket became exercises in defensive warfare against industrial farming, food conglomerates, and big business, all of whom were bent on doing me maximum harm for their maximum profit. And now here I was in the kitchen, holding my jar of Hellmann’s, about to face a moral choice between the welfare of millions of hens and my own. 

But like Abraham about to sacrifice his son at God’s command, I was spared the dreadful choice. A close look at the label informed me that all Hellmann’s mayonnaises are made exclusively with, as they put it, “cage-free eggs.” 

After a year when good news has been scarcer than, well, hen’s teeth, I clutched the Hellmann’s jar to my breast. Could it really be that one of America’s major food producers had both my welfare and that of the female chicken at heart? Alternatively, could it be that consumer pressure had inspired Hellmann’s move to use olive oil, and eggs from cage-free birds? 

Whatever the reason—and I suspect it’s #2—it gives me hope. Maybe the next target for us consumers could be the bull calves that are born each year to keep their mothers lactating.  Heaven knows I sympathize with the plight of dairy farmers, but the sight every spring of farms with dozens of calves in rows of individual “calf igloos” may well drive me to veganism. In a nation that sends robots to Mars, surely there is a way we can have our cheese and eat it, with a clear conscience.




Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Reading...Reading...

Reading is my vice. If I’m not writing or drawing or making smoothies for lunch or walking Bisou, I’m reclining on cushions, reading. I’m not proud of this. Even though I mostly read what the culture considers “good” books, and reading is supposed to engage the mind more actively than watching TV, I know I should read less. 

I read to get away from the vicissitudes of daily life, from worries about the future, and above all I read to get a break from what Jung called the endless “circumambulation of the self.” And I read for company--the company of the author, whose voice reaches me across space and time and opens doors to worlds that I would otherwise never know. Sometimes, when bits of those worlds turn out to be almost exact replicas of bits of my own world, I feel a shock of recognition, and the author and I become fast friends. 

I especially like it if my author friend has published many books, so that I can spend months in her company. I fell in love with Iris Murdoch’s mind, and with the way she invents enormously intelligent characters who are at the same time enormously foolish. Luckily for me, she wrote 26 novels. I felt bereft when I reached the final one (Jackson’s Dilemma, written as she began her decline into dementia), so I read them all again. A year or so later, missing her company, I went back for a third reading. 

Then there is Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels on his daily train commute to his job with the British postal service. I don’t think I’ve read them all yet, but I’m almost there. Trollope’s characters, unlike those of his contemporary, Dickens, are never wholly saints or sinners, but complicated mixtures of both. I don’t know whether Trollope was a good man, but I don’t see how anyone so fully in sympathy with humans in all their imperfections could be anything but kind. 

I am not a fiction writer, yet certain novelists teach me to write. At the moment, I’m reading my way through Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series (25 novels), in the order in which they were written. I care very little about who murdered whom, or how the endearing Wexford solved the crime. But I am agog at Rendell’s rendering of physical detail. She tells us how every character, no matter how minor, looks, speaks, and is dressed; how houses are furnished, from wallpaper to floor coverings; how gardens bloom or wither in various seasons. And she’s wonderful on weather, especially rain, as one would guess, given her nationality. How did she manage, as she built her complicated edifice of scenes and clues, to have the mental space and imagination to write all those descriptions? 

And then there are the writers who make me laugh, to whom I devoutly give thanks every time I open one of their books. I read them mostly for therapy, since I’m not sure that it’s possible to learn to write humor (it’s either in your DNA, or it isn’t). At difficult points in my life you can calculate my distress levels by the number of P.G. Wodehouse novels and short-story collections on my bedside table. 

Aided and abetted in my vice by my Kindle, which can waft almost any book in the world to me in the middle of the night in the middle of a blizzard, I read my life away. My electronic library contains 496 volumes, safely stored where they never need dusting. 

At night, lying in bed Kindle in hand, I tell myself that I should turn off the light and go to sleep. True, reading is good for writers, but it can also replace writing, and that is a danger for me. And I think about Cervantes’ warning, in Don Quixote, against other dangers of excessive reading. Enamored of novels of chivalry, Don Quixote sold his land to buy books, and spent day and night reading volume after volume. Eventually, Cervantes tells us, “as a result of too much reading and not enough sleep, his brain dried up, and he went mad.” 

I’m not there yet, but some days my brain does feel a little “dry,” and I worry that I might end up like my compatriot Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.







Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Miss Daisy at the Wheel

 I was seven before I could tie my shoes, twelve before I learned to tell time, and almost twenty when I got my driver’s license. I can’t account for the first two delays, but the third one was partly due to my own MeToo story. When I turned eighteen my father, tired of chauffeuring me around, decided that it was time I learned to drive. Although he had the patience required to be my violin teacher, he knew his limits, and he signed me up for lessons at a driving school in Birmingham, Alabama. 

It was late spring, and already sweltering. The air was heavy with the scent of magnolias, and the mockingbirds were in full cry. The instructor was a skinny, youngish guy wearing a crew-cut, t-shirt, and shorts, and when he saw me, his eyes lit up. “Why sure,” he drawled, “I’ll be happy to teach a pretty girl like you to drive.” (FYI, I was no Miss Alabama contestant. Just a healthy, well-nourished young woman.) He opened the driver’s door for me, “Just set right down, honey, and make yourself comfortable,” he grinned. 

I sat behind the wheel, but was not comfortable. I was in a state of terror lest I cause the car to buck when I let out the clutch, as had happened during my father’s first and only attempt to teach me. Add to that the close proximity of my leering instructor and the sultriness of the afternoon, and all I knew was that I wanted run out of there, beg my father’s forgiveness, and possibly become a nun. 

“How did your lesson go?” my father asked when he came to pick me up. 

“It was terrible. I hated it! I’ll never learn,” I moaned. It didn’t even occur to me to tell him the real reason for my discomfiture. To us girls in the 1960s, sexual harassment was another of those annoyances that came with being female, like menstruation. 

Gritting my teeth, the following week I went back for an encore: the heat, the instructor’s compliments (“That’s a real nice outfit you’re wearing!”), the bucking car. Then, miraculously, a reprieve: my parents decided to send me to Barcelona for the summer, albeit on the condition that I continue my driving lessons there. 

This time the instructor was older and bigger than the Birmingham guy, and even more thrilled to have me in the tiny Fiat with him. It wasn’t as hot, though, and my clutching and shifting had improved a bit. But when the stares and the compliments progressed to pats on the arm, I cancelled the rest of my lessons, left the city, and spent the rest of the summer riding my bike on the dusty roads near my grandparents’ farm. 

In Birmingham that fall, my father took me back to the driving school. My first instructor was gone, however, and the new teacher was a (to me) elderly gentleman who cared more about my driving than my looks and who, at the end of the first lesson, said reassuringly, “Don’t worry. You’ll make a fine little ol’ driver someday.” A couple of weeks later, having demonstrated my ability to parallel park on a hill, I got my license. 

Unfortunately my father, having watched me maneuver a shopping cart in the A&P, concluded that I was still a danger behind the wheel, and sent me back for more lessons. The elderly instructor had the good grace not to laugh when he saw me coming. 

But his prophecy was accurate. More than half a century later, not only am I a fine little ol’ driver; I am a fine little ol’ lady driver. For I drive like a little old lady, the way I imagine Miss Daisy (of Driving Miss Daisy) would have driven if she had been behind the wheel. 

Gone are the days of shifting and double-clutching and parallel parking. Like the rest of the world, I now drive an automatic with a camera that shows me where I am when I back up, which is handy because I am no longer tall enough to see over the backseat. The car helpfully flashes lights at me if I’m about to make an imprudent lane change—not that I change lanes unless absolutely necessary. Left to myself, I pick a lane and remain faithful to it until I arrive at my destination. And the back-up camera gets little use, since I avoid parking anywhere I’ll have to back out of, even if it means having to skate over an icy parking lot to get to the store. As for parallel parking, one of Vermont’s many charms is that, with only 600k inhabitants in the state, there is hardly ever the need for it. 

Safety first is my motto, and I feel safest if I’m going under 40mph, which means avoiding four-lane highways, of which there are blessedly few in this state. In fact, except during mud season, I’m happiest on a dirt road that, but for the occasional milk truck, is free of scary semis and people in a hurry, and winds calmly from woods to fields, offering views of pasturing cows, sheep, and the occasional alpaca. 

My only fear on those dirt roads is of cyclists, of which there are way too many around here. I feel foolish following one up a hill at 5mph, scared to pass because I can’t see what’s coming at me in the opposite direction. And when I do pass one, I’m tormented by visions of his or her keeling over, like the Monty Python guy on the tricycle, right into my path. 

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,/O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!, Robert Burns cooed to the field mouse whose nest he had upturned with his plow. Except for the sleek part, two centuries later the poem is a spot-on picture of me as I drive down the alarming roads of life.



Thursday, June 10, 2021

Wings

The guardian angels have flown off, who used to sit on our right shoulder or walk invisibly a step ahead, keeping us from falling into ditches and temptation. They have disappeared into the ether, tired of being ignored. Maybe they’ve become extinct, due to habitat loss in the hearts of humans. Or perhaps they have simply retreated, like a threatened bird species, to places where they feel safe, such as the bottom of the ocean, or another planet altogether. 

In this fractious age I long for the company of my personal angel, assigned to me by God at birth, even though I haven’t felt his presence since I was in pigtails. I remember one summer, out in the fields with friends from my grandparents’ village. An apartment-dwelling city kid, I stand hesitating at the edge of a creek as the others jump across. One of the girls advises, “say a prayer to your guardian angel and you won’t fall in.” How can I ever recover that trust? 

But I don’t only want my own angel back. I want guardian angels for members of Congress of both parties, for everybody in the White House, and for the nine Supreme Court justices. I want guardian angels for doctors and nurses and nurses’ aides, and mothers and fathers, teachers, border-crossing refugees, police officers, farmers, and pet owners. I want guardian angels for animals wild and domestic, and for forests and houseplants and vegetable gardens. 

How can we get them back? The ancient Greeks left jars of milk and honey at the local spring to make sure its naiad would keep the water flowing through the summer. But how do you lure an angel? Some kind of nectar comes to mind, like the sugar water one puts out to attract hummingbirds. But angels being pure spirits, food won’t do the trick. What about angel decoys? If putting out a duck statue causes ducks to come plunging out of the sky, we could maybe attract angels by becoming angelic ourselves. But that is too much like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, which are feeling pretty frayed these days. Maybe the desire for an angel’s return might be enough, since that is all that is in our power to offer, just as the simple desire for union with God is said to be the most efficacious kind of prayer. 

In the meantime, I’m making an effort to pay attention to the possible hidden presence of angels in my midst. For example, I’m wondering about the wood thrush that sings its heart out all evening long in the maple tree behind our cottage. I have never heard a thrush sing so close, or so loudly and persistently, night after night. It gives me goosebumps, the way he harmonizes with himself (he does this by controlling the two branches of his syrinx, or voice-box, independently). When he pauses between songs, other thrushes answer him in the woods beyond.  

The song of the thrush sounds unlike any other music on earth, and more like what I imagine to be the music of the spheres, coming from somewhere out in the universe, piercing and liquid and sweet. Or maybe it’s the voice of an angel—angels in the Bible were notorious for adopting disguises—warbling endlessly at me, saying something like: Pay attention! Don’t think so much. We’re all around you. We never left. 

If a state of total alertness combined with total delight is what being in the presence of a heavenly being feels like, then it may well be that the singer in the maple tree and his fellows in the woods beyond are in fact the angels that we thought were gone.