Mathematical mystics, they practiced a religion based on numbers, cosmology and geometry, concluding that reality, in which music and astronomy were prominent components, was based on math. Certain whole numbers equaled particular aspects of reality. For instance, 1 was the essence of everything, 2 was matter, 4 was justice, 5 was marriage and so on. I have been unable to discover what 3 was.
The core of their belief was that the universe could be expressed in whole numbers. Everything reflected the harmony between numbers, rational numbers; all was in ratio—the root of the word rational.
Hippasus, perhaps in working on getting the dodecahedron into a sphere, although the Pythagorean’s weren’t particularly interested in circles, discovered there were other numbers that could “not be expressed as a ratio of two integers”. These numbers had infinite, non-repetitive decimals that went on and on like the tail of a comet, like Pi. These have become known as irrational numbers.
However, what Hippasus had done by discovering irrational numbers, was to crash the Pythagorean belief system. His friends took him out fishing and drowned him, or so the legend goes.
The first human reaction on being faced with a provable, factual demolition of a belief is to kill the messenger rather than rethink the message. That is why the Dalai Lama’s statement that if a scientific discovery conflicts with something in Buddhism, it is the later which must adjust, is an extraordinary declaration from a religious leader.
Our need for perfection, built into our brains, psychology and emotions, is illogical, intense, internal and humanly eternal. We want order. We do not want to live in an irrational universe. We want it to be tidy. I suspect this is because perfection makes us feel safe. If we cannot have perfection we will accept its drab replacement, uniformity. Often we confuse the two. However, either appears to build invisible psychological walls around us. Although why that should be true I don’t know, but it seems to be integral to our DNA. This human foible causes catastrophes, endless murders and massacres, yet we hardly ever notice it.
The human need for reassurance through perfection is not benign. The Inquisition, Senator McCarthy in the1950’s in the US, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia being three obvious examples. The level of uniformity desired is not, and this is what makes it blood curdling, think 1984, is not external. It must be internal as well, this conformity.
The first person I know of who actually “voiced” the problem of internal uniformity was China’s first Emperor, Quin Shi Huang. A man of extraordinary executive talents, he unified China in 221 BC when he was 38. He designed a military organization that created, possibly for the first time, a chain of command through which the man at the top could quickly locate anyone not effective at their job beneath him. With that army he conquered the severely chaotic states of China and then enlarged the territorial mass of the country. He created the title emperor. Before leaders had been mere kings.
Having unified the country he began systematically to standardize the regulation of practices within his domain. He unified the various walls of the old states into one wall, constructed a massive national system of viable roads. He is most famous for his Terracotta Army in his grave. It is believed he burned books, banned them and executed scholars.
In the midst of all of his strenuous and brilliant managerial work, he realized that what he lacked was a method by which he could be assured that all the people in his domain would think the same way and that this was necessary for a continuous, peaceful state to exist. The execution of the scholars I would guess was an attempt in the direction of the perfection he was seeking. He did not find a solution to this problem of achieving mental uniformity but various states have been working at it ever since, although most dictators have been perfectly happy to achieve apparent mental standardization through terror.
But the first Emperor was more philosophical, more humane. He was not a little Hitler exercising his ego. To him a nation’s purpose was to provide for people. It was a unit that to be efficient needed to be systematized. It was not a culture; it was a machine that needed to effectively function economically, supply people with work, a legal system and such necessities. Dance, poetry, books, ideas were not just superfluous but potentially dangerous. I suspect he was against emotion since all these arts and sciences are expressions of human emotions. Emotions are messy and unregulateable.
I think Quin Shi Huang is an amazing, fascinating and thoroughly terrifying person. I doubt that he gave even a glancing thought to what such mental conformity would mean in terms of enormous cultural impoverishment. Society was a machine to him and the fact that people thought differently was the equivalent of metal protrusions on cogs causing friction and stoppages in the mechanism. That the eradication of those protrusions would eviscerate the richness of the arts and sciences, of life itself, was not of interest. He wanted a smoothly running machine. It would not have occurred to him or interested him that this kind of regulation of people was dehumanizing. Confucius’ teachings were suppressed during his reign.
Probably he was completely aware that multiracial and multicultural societies, because of their built in diversity, require greater amounts of regulation than more homogeneous cultures even necessitating genocide should the population resist conformity. Genocide would have been for Quin Shi Huang merely a method, one of many to hand, like that array of picks and burrs one’s dentist lays out on her tray. The present Chinese government has embraced it, however, with some but not great reluctance, as an action of last resort for the Uighurs of western China. This may mean we have made some progress over the centuries.
In the US, because it is a young, unsure society of diverse peoples, conformity tends to be rigid particularly in the internal states. Individuality is psychologically punished and may be physically punished as well. In contradistinction, while Britain was homogeneous, or believed itself to be, “eccentricity,” provided it wasn’t sexual, was not only enjoyed but encouraged. Deviation was delightful.
Monotheism may be a result of this human perfectionistic urge. How messy to have a conglomeration of gods. Who should you pray to for your son’s health, your husband’s promotion? There might be three or four candidates. It is much simpler to have one entity to go to for everything. Monotheism and Amazon seem to me to have a lot in common as monopolies. The fact that under multi-god religions there was little persecution because of differences in belief while with the advent of monotheism the institutionalization of persecution, via civil as well as ecclesiastical organizations, to enforce religious conformity became standard practice is rarely noticed or discussed.
Many have been burned, tortured and cast out of their societies for spiritual nonconformity. The case of Hippasus and the Pythagoreans is an exact parallel to Galileo and the Catholic Church.
But this destructiveness results from our yearning for perfection, which we desire because it helps us feel safe. It is imposed by us upon us because we want to have a comfortable or comforting emotion. Yet practically never, at least in the West, do we acknowledge safety is totally illusionary. Buddhism uniquely deals with the facts of our lack of control.
Once conceived you, whether man or mouse, are at the mercy of the uncontrollable. You may be aborted, miscarried, strangled on your own umbilical as you emerge from the birth canal. Once out and breathing dangers multiply.
An acquaintance in the US a year or so ago contacted me about moving to Spain. Every third query was the same. “Is it safe?” I gained her eternal hostility by responding, “No. It is not safe. There is nowhere that is safe.” I find this fact just as upsetting as do most of my friends. The pandemic has made our awareness of our ineradicable insecurity more intense. My downstairs neighbor pushes the elevator button with his key. I wash my banana in the morning before I peel it. Neither action necessarily makes us safe.
But we live in a universe where “safe” is a non sequitur as is “perfection,” because they are not real but anomalous human inventions. What does the Horse Head Nebula have to do with perfection or the Grand Canyon or my cat, Galata? Perfection and safe are not among the concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, or astronomy. What we yearn for does not exist except within the confines of our brains. They are our delusional inventions.
Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly…. A TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE, Miguel de Unamuno
When Galata first arrived, from the Costa Brava where she had been surviving as a street cat, in her urine soaked travel case, and for a number of months after, she had no discernable personality. There was only one character component, terror. At that point she had snails in her lungs, crystals in her bladder, worms in her intestines and due to a botched hysterectomy she was in a state of hysterical, exceedingly vocal, nymphomania, 24 hours a day. She was one long howl.
Our vet told me she is four to six years old, in other words a grownup. He also showed me her mouth. All the teeth on one side have been broken, she tends to drool a little on that side, and one or two are broken on the other side. She is small and therefore looks younger to the human eye. The friend who brought her to me said that the boys in town would tempt her with food and then kick her when she came to take it.
She ate in huge inhaling gulps. I was afraid she might choke herself so I stroked her while she gobbled saying, “Easy does it. Slow down.” But she was sure some one, some thing was going to snatch her food away. She now eats more slowly, I still stroke her, but any alien noise or movement causes her to run, although not far.
I realized that, although Galata has spent some time in houses, not, I think, necessarily happy time, she is a feral cat because she does not know how to open a door. Any cat who has grown up in a house knows how to open a door.
An injection rid her lungs of snails, an expensive special diet eradicated the crystals, one pill killed the worms but she had to go in for a second hysterectomy. With each treatment she howled a little bit less frequently. It all took about two months but not only is she now healthy, she is no longer pooping in a corner of the living room, on the bare tile and she does not howl.
Galata comes to bed, if I bring her, but at first she would sleep as far from me as she could get. She liked being on the bed but was terrified. She liked being stroked–she purred–but was terrified. She liked being brushed—she purred—but was terrified. Her single expectation of me seemed to be that I was going to at any moment beat her to death.
As she came out of her most primal terror she would let me stroke or brush her but if I exceeded some undisclosed level of intimacy, or sensual capacity, she would, with lightening speed, lift a paw and rake me across cheek or eyebrow. Watching the motion of her tail was useful as an indicator but no reliably so.
The other thing she has done with her claws is turn the slipcover of the sofa bed into shag rug and the complexion of the living room carpet to a case of small pox.
The vet when I told him about the face clawing prescribed Prozac. I gave her half a tablet every day for a month sandwiched in a slice of butter. Our relationship improved. For a month she didn’t claw me. We reduced the dosage to half a pill every other day for a month. All was fine until the end of the second month when Galata reached up and left a bloody track beside my right eye. Having done that, she spent some time looking at me thoughtfully. It seemed to me she was considering that this was not the right action.
After this incident the vet urged me to give her to the cat park near me. I couldn’t do it. It is now another couple of months and her tolerance for intimacy has increased so that I can lean down and giver her a spine scratch without her disappearing from the room. Indeed, in the morning she will back up to me, tail aloft, for a spine scratch, talking all the while in a contralto voice.
For a while she came to bed on her own but only after I had turned out the light, however, she then curled up against some part of me. She has given that up but cold weather, I hope, will change that behavior.
She regularly joins me for breakfast in front of the TV to watch whatever animals are on Arte and try to steal a slice of fuete.
I was brushing her three weeks ago when suddenly she slapped me bloody on my right eyebrow. Again Galata spent time in thought. A few days later when I brushed her she took my hand in her mouth, didn’t bite, but held it there. I thought we might have arrived at an entent cordial.
A few days ago she slapped me across the face twice in quick succession while I was brushing her but her claws were completely sheathed. So, we have figured out how to behave in that situation to our mutual satisfaction.
Cats, unlike dogs who will give up something they want to please you, are the epitome of self-centeredness and cannot understand why you would give up anything you want for any reason. They remind me of my grandson who at the age of five, when I had told him he could not do something he wanted to do said to me as a complete explanation of the situation, which would cause me to reverse my decision, “But Nana, I WANT to.”
Humans are arrogant and apt to believe only they have feelings or the ability to reason. Cats can reason well beyond what one would imagine and they have excellent, memories. They can also be bigots. I had a female who despised human males. She wasn’t afraid of them; she held them in contempt and didn’t want to be around them. If I wanted to be around them that was my choice but she would absent herself.
My friend V had a Maine Coon cat, these are large, heavily furred cats who frequently have loving personalities. Sutton was not one of those. She didn’t think much of V, rather liked V’s daughter and really disliked H, V’s husband. The bone of contention was Sutton’s favorite chair, which H considered his chair. He would push Sutton off it, not lift her off to a cushion on the sofa, just shove her off.
Sutton’s response was to barf in H’s boots, not in his slippers, not in his shoes, all readily available, but always in his boots where he could not see the vomit, just step into it with a socked foot. Sutton did not do this all the time. She would allow long periods to elapse between barfs so H would forget and not look in his boot.
I knew a man whose cat, when he and his girl friend went away for a weekend, would lay a curl of poop neatly on his pillow to greet him on his return. Never did the cat poop on the girl friend’s pillow. The cat knew who was responsible for the absence and only that person was punished.
I had a cat who was home alone when some men broke into my Brooklyn apartment through the fire escape window. When I came home I couldn’t find her in the apartment but that evening, as I was roasting a chicken for my son and myself and mourning her, she came out from behind the stove.
A year later the superintendent of the building took a tenant down the fire escape to help her get into her apartment, which she had locked herself out of. The cat saw the two figures on the fire escape, leapt off the sofa and slithered behind the stove.
My father used to say that our lives are founded on decisions reach on the basis of inadequate information. The problem reasoning cats have is often limited information. My previous cat, Shimi Moto (Cat Motor in Tibetan) observed that I turned lights on and off in the apartment. On a cloudy day in Barcelona she came to me in the library and complained. I got up from my desk and she took me to the other end of the apartment, to the terrace where she sunbathed, sat on the terrace and complained. There was no sun. If I turned on lights in the apartment why couldn’t I turn on this light, which was at the moment off. She did exactly the same routine with her English babysitters who also figured out that she wanted the big light on.
Galata is what is called in the West a calico. In Japan they are called tabi mi-ke, triple fur, and are considered to have vehement personalities as well as supernatural powers. They frighten away ancestral ghosts, for instance. 99.9% of tabi mi-kes are female. All male tabi mi-kes are born sterile. What, I wonder, is that about?
I enjoy watching her personality appear bit by bit. Even though a mature cat, she chases her tail, although she doesn’t understand what toys are. She is beginning to consider my hand under the sheet as a possibly pounceable, fantasy mouse. I don’t know yet whether she has a sense of humor. Some cats do. Although her personal parameters are changing, she definitely has them and therefore doesn’t hide under the sofa bed any more. She has learned to open doors. She is not secure enough yet to consider me staff but that will inevitably happen.
I am glad to have had a difficult cat with an emerging vehement personality during lock down. I am sure she has wept inwardly in the bad past and I hope she will laugh much in the future. Now she has the serenity in which to reason.
cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton
I am using this quote as a header again because I have been thinking about and having contact with various forms of mental…. What to call it? Insanity is too strong. Illness, yes but it does not seem a good fit. Madness, no. Perhaps, mental instability, a wavering between perceived realities, a nebulous hovering, havering.
Two factors caused me to focus on this, one was returning to my gym. It is absolute heaven—machines are spaced and all the windows are open. I can do my routine in an hour, not walk 10k, which requires two hours. Being able to work out on a more or less normal schedule has righted my listing mental ship but also made me aware the cant of my previous mental angle. The second was learning about someone else’s mental list.
My gardener who looks after the irrigation system on my small terrace, something I abjure all knowledge of, was supposed to come Monday. He is always on time. When he was fifteen minutes late, I called him.
In a panicked voice he said, “Oh dear, I forgot. I am at the hospital. I have the virus.”
I talked to him for a minute but he was frantic. I called the friend who had recommended him. She was shocked saying, “But I talked to him yesterday. I’ll call him now.”
She did and got back to me. He had had a break down. He didn’t have Covid-19. I can understand being utterly alone for these months one might reach a point where it would be a relief to have the virus. Being in a state of suspense, waiting to GET the virus, it would be easy to imagine the symptoms into existence.
Sanity is an insecure, unstable point on a spectrum. By the time you are forty if you have not become aware that most humans are to one degree or another crazy, you have not been paying attention. The problem is how far off we are and how much craziness we are willing to accept in others. I have, for instance, pulled the plug on an acquaintance who is into conspiracy theories and delights in a website that claims Hillary Clinton has killed sixteen people, or is it seventeen. I have also distanced myself from someone who believes Covid-19 is a hoax. I have a friend who is avoiding a woman she thought charming until she discovered the woman is taking an elixir purportedly formulated on the basis of the Trump idea of drinking bleach. She isn’t dead, so it probably isn’t bleach she’s drinking.
I agree, at least in principal, with the physicist Richard P. Feynman who wrote:
I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.
Often I find that idea exhilarating, but on occasion, such as the present occasion, it creates in me an extraordinary sensation of loneliness and, I am trying hard to find the correct words, living without any railings or grab bars in a space much too large for me. Does that make sense? I have a serious case of agoraphobia.
What Covid has done is to dislocate us into a state where our usually self-invented idea of reality has been exposed as a fraud. Ordinarily in life we are allowed by circumstance to create a modestly secure capsule of reality in which we believe ourselves to have a certain amount of control. Simultaneously, and subterraneously, we usually know we are not in control. What is important is that we “feel” we are in control. The emotional factor is of primary importance. The actuality is that we are in control of almost nothing, not our health, not our money, not our loved one, and certainly not tomorrow. If we work hard we may have a fluctuating amount of control over our own mind.
If you look at the above paragraph dead in the eye what I am saying is that most, I think all, of us live normally in a state of self-induced delusion because inviting in the chimera of control allows us to feel comfortable. Covid ripped the mask off that illusion and left us with the reality of our powerlessness. That puts us into an anomalous, existential space, the walls are gone and we are floating, an astronaut who has lost his tether to his vehicle. What we are floating in is a reality that’s scary in its open endlessness.
The idea that we keep our sanity by dabbling in delusion, consciously or unconsciously, is a paradox but, I think, a true one.
The result of being deprived or our chimerical security blanket is not coherent thought but anxiety of a nebulous variety, fear and fear’s best friend, anger. We are in a state of continual existential dread that no one talks about, probably many just valiantly ignore. If it’s not comfortable don’t feel it. Couples I should think suffer less from this than single people; those with children possibly have so much on their hands that they escape from this state entirely. However, the best discussion that I have had of this ambiguous mental state has been with a married man.
There is nothing to be done about it but live, uncomfortably, with it.
It has made me grateful to the semi-feral, rescue cat with health and mental problems I took in just before the pandemic broke. Having another personality in the house to focus on, particularly a difficult personality, is a big help. But that’s the next blog.
cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”
This was a week of joy. Wednesday my house cleaner returned and I don’t have to give over one day a week to vacuuming and dusting and a second day to ironing and floor washing. The windows are unstreaked and shinning. But, in doing those two days of cleaning, which was not sufficient, I realized a) what an effort at my age it is for me to do the work, b) how easy over time it would be to let things get dirty and then have a massive cleaning up or, perhaps, not, just live with the dirt.
This awareness roused the specter of B, my now dead neighbor.
The couple who sold me my apartment, a Belgian-German combo, introduced me to my neighbors, a nice, as well as a good thing to do, mentioning in passing that there was a woman around my age living alone on the first floor, the Principal. Blanca was my introduction to a side of Barcelona/Spanish life I would not otherwise have thought about and an education to me as an American largely uninstructed in a social system close to unimaginable in my country.
Blanca was a little older than I, 3 to 5 years. She had no money and had not paid rent in years. Asking around about her. I found the gossip was she had once been wealthy, very wealthy. This was presumed because she had had a chauffer driven car. That’s a sign of wealth. Her family had owned a store that made hats. Her husband had died, the money had melted away and she, becoming poor, had also become estranged from her son and daughter because she was mean and nasty. That turned out not to be quite the truth.
She spent most of her time in the Catalan library housed in the hospital across the street researching the history of the immediate neighborhood. I wish I had her notes. As time went on I think she gave this up.
The first cause for my American astonishment was that B was still in the apartment, although not paying rent. In NYC she would have been on the street after two months nonpayment. If she did not qualify for a state home she would really have been on the street or in shelters and probably dead within 3 to 6 months. But in Spain she was “a statutory tenant” because she had some sort of eternal lease and because of her age. Her landlord whom I met a couple of times at building meetings, five us of own the building, had once owned the entire edifice. Over the years he had sold off the apartments. I am sure he wanted her dead. I could understand that, but he was so obviously a pinchpenny I didn’t have much sympathy.
I would find B, when I came home from coffee with a friend, sitting on the stair, her small grocery bag beside her, getting her breath back. I would offer to carry the bag up to her door for her. Immediately, she would protest fiercely with many no’s that she was fine and not in need of my help.
Although clean she wore clothes over clothes in the winter, the holes in the top layer revealing the colors of the under layers. Our one sympathetic point of contact was my hats, which she commented on appreciatively.
The man on the second floor had some rapport with her. She let him do a few repairs for her. He, at one point, offered to replace all the broken windows in the apartment for her, there were many, with no charge her. She refused.
Although she had water, she had no electricity, and no gas. She received food through a Meals-on-Wheels program, delivered every morning and hung on her doorknob at eight am. But with no electricity she had no heat, and there were all those l broken windows, all winter, every winter. Sometimes I would see the beam of a flashlight flickering when I looked down at her floor from the patio area outside my kitchen windows.
The second floor neighbor told me that he went by the bathroom with his head turned away.
Although winded by the stairs, she was in feisty spirits and better than adequate physical abilities when I moved in. Things deteriorated, of course. She was visited by her social worker but was so vehement about not being helped that they tended to leave her be. I suspect they urged her to leave the apartment and go into a home. Very sensible but that would have been anathema to her, a capitulation. We old, hang on to our independence, with despair and desperation, until it is in shreds.
I no longer offered help.
Perhaps five years later things had crumbled sufficiently so that they forced her out of the apartment for three days to live with her son while they fumigated it and all of her belongings.
When I met her son once, it took me under five minutes to realize he was crazy. He stood on her threshold trying to sell me a camera, an excellent old one. When I refused, he seemed to wake up to a muddled awareness that perhaps he should not have made that offer.
In her last two years I saw from time to time, in the afternoon, the Meals-on-Wheels bag still on her doorknob. I would pound on her door until she answered to tell her breakfast, lunch and dinner were on her doorknob. I was terrified one day I would pound and there would be no response; she would be dead inside. Sometimes I asked my upstairs neighbor to do the pounding.
She also had a daughter who wanted desperately to help her. She was rejected, as were we all.
When I was on one trip or another, she became ill. They took her to hospital and from there, of course, to a home. That was the end. It took months, but she died.
The landlord’s first action was to have the fumigators in. Everything that creeps, crawls and scurries, I am sure, had a representative in her space. However, it took the penny-squeezer a couple of years to sell the apartment.
Negative role models are important as positive ones. B was a negative exemplar from whom I acquired positive proposals for aging: take help; ask for help; listen to what people tell you and think; don’t reject out of hand.
Male or female, there are few good examples of aging. Shakespeare offers us, all males, Lear, Timon of Athens, pompous Polonius, Henry IV, although he isn’t that old, Prospero who breaks his staff, drowns his book. The crucial factor in his being perhaps the one positive exemplar is that of his own will he abdicates his powers, not waiting for them to be taken from him. Because giving up your powers before they are wrenched from you may be one of the cruxes of aging.
There are books on aging, many written by young people, most written by exceptional people in exceptional circumstances, which tweaks the story. Fear of death or of the process of dying is occasionally talked about.
I don’t see anything craven about fearing death. A woman I knew who fought off cancer for years talked to the Dali Lama about her terror of death. He told her he too was afraid of dying. Why wouldn’t you be afraid of the unknown, no matter how many people have gone there?
Sometimes people just lose interest in life. My mother was one of these. She told me in a bank on 42nd Street in New York one day when she was in her seventies, “I can go any time now. I am not interested in being alive.” No one seems to talk about this mind set. Others, like her sister, my Aunt Liz, are just curious to see how the sun comes up tomorrow.
Two of my role models for dying are Alexandra David Neal, the first Westerner to get to Lhasa, who died at the age of 100 during a nap after going over her royalty statements and Montserrat Abelló, a Catalan poet, who rose at, I think, 93 from her table after lunch saying, “I need a nap,” and never got up again. Naptime is a good time to leave.
I am finding eighty to be the age of elder adolescence, meaning that as in adolescence there are disruptive bodily changes. I don’t like this. It isn’t just that I wake up with aches. There are a range of changes to your surfaces and organs–your digestion as much as your sexuality. Your skin is drier, rough patches appear. You may grow little things as though you are a disintegrating pier with barnacles and clumps of mussels.
If female you develop a tummy, a sort of round lump at the bottom of your pelvis, possibly before you are 80, but you will definitely have it in your 80’s. Sometimes dancers are impervious to this longer. Men get it too eventually. Something that has been holding things up in your gut has decided to let go.
My two big dissatisfactions physically are the tummy and the considerable loss of energy that takes place at 80 and increases each year thereafter. The gym helps but certainly does not solve the problem. It’s as though my energy is cheese being nibbled by a mouse. I sleep more. I do less. I have no metabolism to speak of. However, if I allow myself to be resentful I will become angry and defensive, a variation on B and that is not the way to go.
A loss that saddens me sad is my hearing. When I take out my hearing aids, I cannot hear my new cat purr, only feel the vibration in her body. Due to glaucoma I have developed a little blind area in my left eye.
Then there are the mental changes. Words suddenly amble off like truant children. Maybe they go down to the sea to build Gaudi castles. I find that if I am patient they often return in a few minutes. Names, however, take longer trips. They can be gone for a couple of days, whether to Gerona or Biafra I have no idea. People of great mental power I knew at Columbia ended up not being able to read their own books. That is terrifying.
The two things I do not want to outlive are my brains and my money.
We think we are all right because we do what we have always done and the mind in its groove is quite happy to putter along but challenged to think in a different way, given an alien task, it may come to a full stop.
While dealing with these changes we, or certainly I, am trying to cope with the presence of death in my life. It has always been there, although not particularly central. If at twenty death is central to your life you are either hopelessly romantic or neurotic.
As I have aged death has moved out of the wings of my theater to center stage. What seems to happen is that I am walking around it, or is it walking around me, seeing it from different perspectives, but always in its presence. It is dominant. In the US there is talk of elder depression for which doctors give pills. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps if you are living in the sphere of death you are going to be depressed until you work out this relationship; it is a relationship and, I think, most of your experience in life so far is used to create that liaison. One can, of course, ignore the whole thing and many do. For each of us it is different. Old age is an amazingly individual time period,
Although I have little control over my aging situation, progression, what control I have is mental and amazingly important to my well-being and the continuity of my personality, who I am. I need to know how old I am but NOT accept any of the dictums handed out by my culture about my age. I must decide and work at who I am within that spectrum of what 80 can be. Does that make sense?
Then there is the outside reaction to our aging, the condescension of younger friends. When I went off on my five month solo journey to China, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and French Polynesia someone remarked, “Isn’t she cute to be doing that.” Another friend insisted that I must take someone with me, that it would be impossible for me to do it alone. I will not comment on what I felt but issue the curse that those who condescend should in their turn be condescended to.
I am closing with two poems one by an old friend, Harvey Shapiro, the other mine. Harvey’s is about breaking your staff and drowning your book. Mine is about what happens when you don’t.
HOW CHARLIE SHAVERS DIED
He had a gig
but he was hurting.
His doctor said, play the date,
then check into the hospital.
That night, when the party ended
and the band packed up,
Charlie start to give stuff away—
his watch, his rings—to the women
in the room. Then
he circled the room with his horn
playing: “For all I know we may never meet again.”
At this point, the man who was telling the story
in the locker room at the Manhattan Plaza gym
and who had sung the line slowly, with
a pause between each word, began to cry.
There were no licenses when she learned to drive,
just straight dirt roads between green fields of wheat
that bent to her wind, which spurned with its passing heat
the ripe green heads and made the rabbits dive
into the thicket of swaying stalks. It was
her way to delete her mother, the world. Once wed
she drove away from arguments, buried
them in the speed of her anger, which became both cause
and effect. When she picked up the hitchhiker Death,
that beggar’s first demand was the alms of her eyes;
the cataracts were the blur of his breath,
his exhale shrinking her boundaries without reprise.
He shut her highways, lowered his border bar,
till the only way out was on his road, in his car.
When I left the U.S. I sent, a few weeks before my exodus, all my worldly goods packed into three-quarters of a container to Barcelona. I already owned my apartment, the renovation of which was supposed to be much further along than it was. My cat, Shimi Moto, and I slept on a futon, a rather narrow futon, on the floor of the library full of bookless shelves.
Shimi did not much approve of this situation, it was difficult for the two of us to fit on the futon, but she was an amenable cat, much traveled by rail, car and most recently plane, business class with her own seat. She only complained once on the flight. I opened her case so that she could see where she was. She stuck her head out into the cabin. The expression on her face approximated that of a respectable, Westchester matron discovering herself inexplicably transported to a male brothel in Tangier. She recoiled back into the case and did not complain again.
Shimi, I should explain, entered Spain, unintentionally on both our parts, as an illegal alien and remained so until her death some two years ago. It happened this way.
I had all our papers in hand and after I went through passport control looked about for any sign about entering animals. I saw nothing. I approached a young man in uniform, pointed at Shimi’s case saying, “Tengo una gata.” She was after all a female cat. The young man was a bit taken aback by the female form but adjusted himself and asked, “Tienes papeles?” I proffered her papers.
He opened the folder and went through them very thoroughly before turning to me, laying a finger across his lips and with his other hand pointing vehemently at the exit. So out the door into Spain we went and never looked back.
Somehow I had made my way with my lame Spanish through all the necessary labyrinths to get my goods passed by customs on arrival and then arranged through, I think, my superb architect, to pay for the street to be closed in front of my building for two hours so that an elevator platform could come and lift my belongings up to my window on the fifth floor where furniture, rugs and bulky things would enter the apartment over the balcon railing. Belongings in smaller boxes came up in the elevator, all the books, which the men unpacked and rammed any old way onto the shelves so they could take at least those boxes away.
But a few days ago I relived the thrill of standing in the middle of my bookless library watching sofa, after chair, after table rise solemnly up and the men reach out to pull each off the platform before it sank slowly down for the next load.
Only this time I was sitting at my desk as I-beam after I-beam went up swaying gracefully before my window. The street was blocked from all traffic for a specified amount of time, so that the compact little elevator, not in this case a platform but a series of arms and elbows which unfold, can park in the middle of the street, lean another arm against the building to steady itself and lift things up, with the help of a winch, to the roof.
Another event of this week was to see the most up-to-the-minute style in a hat shop window on the edge of Urquinoana. It was a sun-visor with an attached mask and clear plastic face shield. Absolutely au courant and chic.
But the big event, of course, was that Mendi’s the café down stairs opened. You can only sit on the terrace under the trees and there are not a lot of tables but what joy to have a café con leche with a friend while the cat ladies are cleaning out the cat park. It gives me needed distance from demolition noise.
I think they must be hollowing out the old convent to the walls and totally reconstructing it within that shell. Facades are protected in Barcelona; you are not allowed to alter them so often everything but the façade is destroyed before new construction begins.
They are still sending rubble roaring down a chute many times a day; along with drilling there are various tonal levels of pounding going on. This all appears to be happening in the tall, front building.
The little building in the back, which is only two stories high with a curved outside stair up to the second floor where narrow balcons open before tall, arched windows, seems to be, so far, intact. Between these two buildings is a court, which I cannot see into well but what I can glimpse suggests lots of rubble. On my side of that court is a roof, which serves as a bridge between the two-story and the tall.
Two spirited young men leapt happily yelling at each other crossed this bridge that connects the two-story and the tall, went to the rear of the two-story roof where there is a bit of projecting wall, went round the wall and disappeared. I realized for the first time that there must be a stair there. What they ran through used to be the nun’s garden. I had thought the nuns only had access to the roof from that bridge of roof. Interesting what you discover about a building you have never entered during its reconstruction.
By the way, Shimi and I slept on the floor on the futon for, I think, about two months. I remember it took me a week to shelve the books. Shimi spent her days, not unhappily, curled up in one or another of the boxes in what was to become the living room, coming to bed with me at night. After the books I shelved, so to speak, my clothes, in the walk-in closet with the help of a friend from Rome. Then the master bathroom was finished. Then the kitchen. One day Shimi heard the men, cats are acute about sound, moving the bed out of the living room. A furred flash she positioned herself in the hall to see where they were taking HER bed. That was the first time I realized it was HER bed. She watched the operation and surely less than a second after they hefted the mattress onto the bed, it’s a four legged teak, Thai bed with clawed feet, she was on it, washing up with an air of delicious smugness before taking a nap on HER bed.
As anyone who has owned a cat knows, the saying “Dogs have owners but cats have staff,” is one of the unalterable truths. I was most complimented by her belief through cars, trains and planes that finally her staff could be trusted to arrange events so all would be well for her on HER bed.
(Shimi Moto means Cat Motor in Tibetan.)
My cobbler opened this week, a good surprise, causing me to think, mangling Shelley, “if my cobbler comes can my flower lady be far behind.” Yesterday she was open. I bought two stems of tightly budded lilies and, as there were no lilies of the valley, too late in the season for them, three big mottled pink balls of peony buds. My flower lady is thinner, worn, her dark eyes large in her long face. The tension of this time has marked her. When she spoke of the future it was not with optimism but concern about the recurrence of the virus. But I am so grateful to have her back.
The lilies have been reluctant to open but the peonies are ruffling out like a closet of fin de siècle dresses in a Parisian closet. They even have a slight scent. When I was a child, peonies had a wonderful perfume but they have been improved until they are odorless.
My other memory around peonies is that they attracted ants and Japanese beetles. I don’t think the ants are harmful but the beetles, which have the most gorgeous, metallic, green and gold backs, munched right through the buds, destroying any possibility of bloom. My insomniac Aunt Liz used to drift out on summer evenings with a jar of kerosene to collect and drown them. She did this in her white night gown, a horticulturally appreciative ghost, a wisp of misty white in the gloam of the garden.
An aside. If you have never read about the Japanese beetle man in Gerald Durrell’s MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS you have missed a fine portrait. He is a hunchbacked peddler on Corfu who ties thread around the beetles and attaches them to his hat. He sells them to children on his route or at fairs since if you whirl them about they make a satisfying buzzing sound as they circle over your head.
Further gratitude. The café on the corner opened earlier this week. I had my first café con leche in over two months under the trees in the minute square containing the monument to Margarita Xirgu. When I make coffee at home I drink it black. The café con leche followed a lunch of callos with chickpeas and spinach salad. What heaven to eat what someone else has cooked. How superb to not have to wash up. The tables were properly separated and we smiled shyly at each other across the open spaces.
As if to prove that nature is in tune with us, opening up as well, the gulls brought their two fluffy babies up to the roof ridge of the hospital. There seems to be an equal amount of care from the parents, the one with the broken leg doing both guard duty and food gathering. She/he stands on top of a little metal chimney and screams at any with the audacity to come near or stands, meditatively contemplating the webs of her feet, until she regurgitates while the babies dance frantically about her squeaking in my imagination, “Throw up, Mommy, throw up. Hurry up. Throw up. I’m starving. Hurry.”
But I don’t see them today. I hope everything is all right.
Before my flower lady opened I walked up to Valencia to see if the stores and the flower market there were open. I like just inhaling the their wet earth and greenery odor. But they were closed, sealed tight. However, it did give me an opportunity to admire the stained glass in windows on Valencia in that neighborhood, appropriately of flowers, iris I believe, which is exceptionally beautiful.
I did find a florist shop open near my cat food store on Aragó but the cat food was so heavy I was unwilling to add to my load. Also they didn’t have lilies. I am glad I was faithful.
Some stores seem to be open fitfully; the Chinese ones on Balmes, which bless them, are not at all nationalistic but have Thai, Indian, Indonesian ingredients, fresh as well as packets, boxes and cans. One, the smaller, has used the pandemic to do a thorough housecleaning, so thorough it was hard to find things. But I can never tell when I come by if I will find them open or closed. The pair form a sort of tiny Chinatown.
The disturbing event of the week was an email from a friend in Hong Kong that included a video of women demonstrating the apparent dangers of hand sanitizer as an inflammable liquid. My first thought was, have I heard of any cases of people being burned when cooking after using sanitizer? Or have there been reports of smokers with burned hands from lighting up after using hand sanitizer? Surely this would be all over the TV news as well as in newspaper headlines.
My friend had not fact checked the video, so I did. What I found was that the only danger from sanitizer being inflammable is if a bottle is in direct sunlight perhaps in your car or in an airplane. If you leave a bottle on your dashboard in direct sun your car will not explode but you may have a gooey melt down of bottle and plastic dash.
Much more disturbing was to find that this video is available in a number of languages with women whose faces are appropriate to the language. The one my friend sent me features women with Chinese faces. Another in Spanish features “Spanish looking women”. In other words this video is being calculated to a linguistic audience. It is also telling that the women are not pretty, indeed a bit homely, as that makes the video appear more authentic, not like an commercial.
It is not an innocent video. It’s intent is to do harm by causing people to distrust and stop using hand sanitizer. It is a malignant video. I am nonplused by the desire to do this kind of gratuitous damage. I reminds me of the incident in the U.S. years back when strychnine, or was it cyanide, was introduced into Tylenol pills causing a small number of people to die horribly. The perpetrator was never found.
What is further alarming is how easily people accept these “informative” videos. My Internet attitude is, everything is suspect until proved innocent.
A young man I know, not the brightest button in the box, asked me this past week if I thought the Corona-virus came from a laboratory in China. I was horrified that a man in Spain would have “contracted” the Trump lie. I told him I did not think it came from a Chinese laboratory but was a relative of the SARS virus, which never made it to the West.
Then there are those people burning cell towers in England and America because they think Covid is being transmitted by 5G technology. Some of us, and I suppose this will always be true, are mentally, emotionally and informationally in the 12th century. We might get a few Baptist preachers to rant at people that the virus is their fault; God is punishing them for their sins and issue them whips with which to lash themselves. The reference here is to a scene in THE SEVENTH SEAL.
I don’t want to end on this note. I had lunch again today at Mendi’s at an outside table from which I watched the cat ladies cleaning up the cat park while a small, white Scottie-type dog ran along the fence peering in at the cats with intense excitement and an elderly man with his mask covering his chin fed the pigeons. A gull came down to see what the pigeons were getting—the pigeons gave him backed off; the males even stopped chasing the females—ate a few large chunks of bread, it looked uncomfortable as it went down his throat, before deciding it was “pigeon food” and leaving.
This past Sunday I walked to the Sagrada Familia and back, ten kilometers. After a morning of threatening clouds, the streets glowed with sun. People were out, couples walking together, fathers with strollers, mothers with boys on scooters, most with masks, including the children. I had not realized that at noon, perhaps only on Sunday, there is a small concert given by the carillon bells of the Sagrada, a melodious pealing to listen to as I stood beneath the moving green shelter of the street trees. Why should the shadows of leaves on a Barcelona street seem more emphatic to me than those in other cities?
Having read Clara Laughlin’s commentary, I was happy to go to see the church again. There’s lots I am not happy with in what has gone up over the last ten years but what I do like, even when I disapprove of other things, is the piece-meal effect of the building. That is in the spirit of the great medieval cathedrals built over a hundred or hundreds of years as people changed their minds about what they wanted in their building, as architectural ideas altered. I have never cared, for instance, for the finials on the steeples, although I appreciate the touch of color they give to the immense greyness of the building. They look like plastic geegaws to me. Now there is a white, bar like thing that I think is an aesthetic error.
But the Sagrada is a unique expression as Arthur Stanley Riggs, whoever he was, said. The Catalan architectural outburst, and I think it is an outburst of voices clamoring joyously in their own language, in the late 19th early 20th century is an outrageous singular occurrence whether by Gaudi or another architect of that time. I took an American architect friend to see the Hospital de Sant Pau y Santa Cru designed by Lluis Domènech i Montaner. As we wandered through the buildings while I told him about it. He turned to me and commented, “This is astonishing. He was either crazy or on drugs.” A very contemporary compliment.
People were walking in a desultory way, enjoying the sun, the air, looking in shop windows just being alive under the balconies where geraniums bloom in fierce reds. There were cars but not many. I am not looking forward to the return of traffic.
And Monday the traffic was much greater as I walked up to my trainer’s studio. His wife was there with their baby who found me much less interesting than the spoon her mother was wielding. I had Alberto video me doing some exercises my grandson and I have discussed which help you keep your back straight. Alberto, since there is a distance problem, no longer stretches me. He has acquired a thing that looks like a sci-fi ray gun that massages you. It vibrated me furiously until I wondered if my vertebrae were going to be in their usual alignment when he finished. It also made me feel I was being reduced to the condition of tomato aspic in a violent earthquake.
Having worked out I had a thoroughly self-indulgent half hour at the basement grocery in Corte Inglés. I bought a Japanese steak, some of the biggest blue berries I have ever seen, the size of large red grapes, and two exquisite figs—I felt I should hire a Dutch painter to do their portraits, they were so beautiful—and other things, such as chocolate, before happily walking home in the sun.
Coming home down La Rambla I passed my florist’s little glass box. I keep hoping all those glass boxes will open up and pour their colors out onto the pavement in a panoply of bloom around potted orange trees, avocados and other ambitious tall, but usually gangly trunks available for purchase. Last week I saw her sweeping her box out, rearranging the orchids which seem to do well living there alone, and had a surge of hope that she would be open that week, but no. I am still waiting for her.
This morning I was startled to see an I-beam go swaying by my front window. When I went down to shop, I found the street was cordoned off and I-beams were being raised by a winch on the roof of the convent. Repairs are going along. My day is punctuated by the sound of pounding, drills and saws. The deconstruction part seems to be over. I am intensely curious to see what they are going to do with the part of the building I look down on.
On my route to the Boqueria I pass one of my favorite restaurants, Bacaro, an Italian place, small and boisterous with excellent food. I was first tempted through their doors by a menu that offered liver Venetian style, actually liver with onions. They do it well. I saw the steel door was raised and poked my head in. They are cooking for doctors in the hospitals while waiting to reopen. I touched elbows with one of the owners. His news is that he is thinking of opening another venue in Sariá.
There was something in the air today. The contacts with people sparkled, an intrepid warmth slipped out from masks that hid smiles, eyes above masks shone. We seemed in the beautiful day, customer and seller, to be so happy to see and be with each other. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of here we are after months still selling and buying carrots, still asking each other how we are, how the family is. There was a sensation of strength, of congratulation so far at mutual survival.
Coming home with my purchases I looked in my mailbox. One of my kvetches about living in Spain is that the mail service is terrible, particularly for things coming from overseas. I now tell people not to send me any package from abroad because I get yards and yards of forms on line from the customs office that never have anything to do with the book or gift I am receiving. This time I found the box stuffed with six issues of the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT which has been arriving two months late, and that is if I am lucky. Now I have lunchtime reading material for over a month.
I went up stairs, cooked, plugged in the fountain on the terrace; this is a green ceramic snake who wriggles down the wall, sticks his head out and sends a liquid chime of water into the bowl beneath him. I will read a TLS over my omelet.
I am going to go back to Calcutta for a few paragraphs. Nirmal Hriday, however much I found it grim and earnest, at least provided people with a place to die that was clean and as comfortable as things get for the direly poor in India. It was not trying to solve a large problem.
The foreigners with whom I worked were varied as the jars on a spice shelf. I spent most of my time with a Dutch woman who was a psychiatric nurse in Holland, taking care of people out in the countryside. This couldn’t have been a big change of occupation for her, although the work was more physical than mental. There were a couple of Danish girls who had come for a week or two. There were Catholic groups organized by parish priests from all over the world. One such group was a dozen women from Malta, among them a dwarf. She attached herself to me because, as she explained, “You know what you are doing.” This, of course, was not true. But we had a good time together. She had a sharp wit in four languages.
We were given buns and tea at some point in the morning. Usually we went up to the roof to sip and nibble while viewing below us people buying fish cooked on a wooden spits over a tiny charcoal fire. There was a barber who shaved men, trimmed beards and one day cut a woman’s hair and then shaved her head. We thought it might be lice but it could have had a religious meaning.
We may have been sad at the state of the women but we all accepted the situation and our work whether unpleasant to us or not. I found bathing the women difficult because their mortality was a fact beneath my hands, the tactile certainty of bone under the thinnest integument of skin communicated the fragility of life, what would quickly and what more slowly be consumed in the fire at the ghat.
However, one day a young American woman arrived who it became apparent had thought she was coming here not to wipe up diarrhea but to sit sweetly, in a nice outfit, next to the suffering, hold their hands and say kind things to them. She was aghast by what surrounded her and walked around in rubber gloves doing nothing. I finally handed her a rag and said, “Wipe that up,” pointing to a pool of yellow diarrhea in the middle of the floor. She did wipe it up but that was the last we saw of her.
A very beautiful Italian girl sat, as instructed by a nun, beside a dying woman, holding her hand. She complained to me afterwards, ”I couldn’t talk to her. She wouldn’t understand me. I don’t know that she could even hear me. It all seemed so useless.”
The reason there is little contribution from the Indian community is due to the idea of karma. Your karma is the result of your actions in your past life. If you are a beggar dying on the floor of Howrah station it is quite possibly because you were a rich miser or you were mean or even violent to your daughter-in-law in your last life. Your fate in this life is a result of your deeds in your last life and you deserve it. This is a philosophy that certainly makes not giving guiltless.
Out of India and into Barcelona where this was the week children were allowed out of their houses. When I saw my first stroller occupants I was astonished, as though I had come across a furry duck billed platypus in a forest. They have such wonderful tiny fingers. They were looking a bit stunned too. Having been deprived of the outside world for almost two month must have made the streets a terra incognita with all those strange adults wandering around in masks, and then your own mask. They were very good about their masks. I wish I could say the same about the adults.
I have taken to scowling at people who don’t wear masks and occasionally asking them why they aren’t. To those who wear them dangling around their necks I want to say, “Is that a necklace? Do you have earrings to match?” Then there are those who wear their mask below their nose. For them my question is, “Do you breathe through your chin?”
I did a 10km walk, actually three of them, this week, one from Hospital up to Lesseps along Gran de Gracia where I turned left and wandered among small streets with delightful small houses until I came down again, stopping on Gran de Gracia to call a friend so that I could wave to her up on her balcony. Another walk took me up Balmes to Sant Gervasi where I took Via Augusti back down, switching over to Aribau to go to the cat food store on the way home. The third I started by walking down to the Post Office which I love for its beautiful stained glass ceiling—they had sent my package back to HK—up Laietana to Urquinaona, continuing on Bruc to Diagonal and coming down Balmes, all wearing a mask. The one to Sant Gervasi was a killer because the up hill part is aggressively steep.
There were people out but not too many on each walk; the sun was shinning. I would stop to gaze at flower shops, being tempted, and then not buying because it was a long way home and the weight sufficient to discourage a purchase.
I have discovered how difficult housework is in your 80’s and how boring cooking for one can become. However I have shelved books that have been lying about for months and weeded out about 35 that can be given away. I still have to go through my travel section where I cling to out of date guides to India. I would like to cut that in half. But I will not give up my family’s collection of Baedeker’s from the 1910’s or mother’s So You’re Going books.
These date from the 1920’s and were written by Clara E. Laughlin, a woman of great respectability and the very best taste. She knew her American audience was historically ignorant so she delivers small vivid dramas of great moments from the past to enable them to understand the importance of certain sites, saturating them with atmosphere. Her history is sometimes history and sometimes the richest gossip but it works.
When I was deciding to come to Barcelona to live I looked up Barcelona in So You’re Going to Spain, published in 1931. There is very little about the city in her book, which covers Gibraltar, Málaga, Granada, Córdoba, Seville and Madrid. I have to quote this excerpt because it reduces me to laughter every time I read it.
“He (Arthur Stanley Riggs) says the Church of the Holy Family is characteristic of both the city and its spirit and the Barcelonese regard it as their finest expression. Have you ever seen a picture of it? Those I have seen have given me such a feeling of horror that I have never wanted to go to Barcelona. Foolish, of course! I’ll get over it—or, at least, I’ll learn not to look at that church, or to think about it, and enjoy the things in and near Barcelona that are beautiful, even sublime.”
Ah, the opinions of a refined, cultured American lady, in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
I needed cat food the other day, which took me out to the Rambla for the first time in at least a week. It is now wearing its leafy arches, but is totally silent except for bird song, and almost totally empty, the shops on the margins shuttered unless they are a pharmacy or tabac. The waves of the pavement stretch away under the trees like a lost, wind-ruffled stream. Even pigeons seem fewer.
Pigeons and various sectors of the population dependent on others for sustenance are in difficulty. Someone bought baguettes and stuffed them into the holes of the monument for Margarita Xirgu, transforming it into a sort of avian buffet.
The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns with whom I worked for two months in Calcutta, Kolkata, at her hospice for the dying destitute next to the Kalighat Temple, are feeding long lines at the back of Sant Augusti. But there are those who either do not chose to frequent the Sisters or perhaps are not welcomed by them. The Sisters are strict about behavior, talking and prayers. You pray before your meal or you don’t eat. Mumbling, however, is accepted. My two months at Nirmal Hriday did not elevate me to a Mother Teresa enthusiast.
There is a black and white couple that have been camping out and looking desperate in tiny Dr. Fleming Park. He is a black man going grey; she is white and totally out of her mind. While he begs in front of the Dia supermarket on Carme she sits up under a quilt roaring in a hoarse voice in English, American English I believe, about unidentified “bastards” and “assholes”. She retains a faded prettiness along with blond curls going grey. I bought them some cheese and ham. When I did it this week again, she was sipping a beer, looking pleased with life and lucid enough to thank me.
But there seem to be fewer street people than usual. I am supposing many have gone into shelters. What is on the street is exclusively male, decidedly rough, definitely drug and alcohol addicted and living on the salvage edge of the fabric of sanity likely to fray out into madness at any moment. When I walk through the open area behind the Boqueria I do not look at anyone.
Another group, thieves, must also be suffering since their source of income is no longer on the street. Pickpockets have no pockets available and with everyone standing a meter away from each other pickings must be extinct. Unfortunately what may have happened is that the normally nonviolent thieves have taken to violence. A friend walking home one night from shopping had a rope thrown over his head. He was garroted to unconsciousness, robbed of his phone and left. Luckily he survived. This is not the only case I have heard of. Everyone is trying to make a living, however precarious that may be for yourself or those who are your source of income.
I cut over to Universitat on Tallers, zigzagging through narrow streets where there was no one. The plaza before MACBA, my least favorite BCN museum, was silent, without the usual roar of skateboarders gliding at an unnerving pace over the pavement and leaping on and off platforms. Since there are a number of these platforms in the plaza this is a favorite place for practicing this maneuver. It leaves an interesting hiatus in the roar followed by a clunk as the skateboard lands again sometimes with and sometimes without its passenger. I wonder if there are statistics about the number of broken ankles achieved in front of MACBA. I was in an abandoned city, until I heard the traffic on Gran Via.
Once across Gran Via, however, I reentered that abandoned metropolis, silent now in a soft rain that slicked the pavement and pebbled with shiny droplets the parked cars lodged at the sidewalk edge still as chloroformed beetles in a display case. There was nothing particularly sad about these cars packed tightly into their block long cue but the stores, rain dribbling down their fronts, seemed pathetic castaways with their accordion gates looking permanent.
The store, Kiwoko, was new to me, a pet supermarket replete with every variety of food for gerbils to Great Danes and every source of amusement for that species span as well, from exercise wheels for the former to gargantuan rawhide bones for the later. The other customers, there were three, knew what they wanted and darted about loading up their baskets. I wandered in wonder at the infinite varieties of cat foods, cat beds, cat scratching posts, cat towers upholstered in a variety of plush and fake fur, selecting cans of tuna and chicken in a leisurely manner.
It says something about our society that our companion animals eat a plethora of hygienically prepared foods that children in desperate pockets of the world would gobble given the chance. I had a Vietnamese student who said to me once, “When I am reincarnated, I want to return as your cat.” I quite understand his point.
I am about to digress from Barcelona to Calcutta for no better reason than I can. I went to work at Mother Teresa’s, she was dead by that time, partly because having lived in the American culture where attitudes toward death are odd and artificial I thought a dose of reality might be good for me. A friend who had worked there a few years before told me all I had to do was walk into the hospice, pick up a rag and start to work. I would understand what to do by watching others. She suggested I bring boxes of latex gloves and any left over medicines I had.
The hospice is next door to the Kalighat Temple where each morning hundreds of goats have their throats cut as sacrifices to Kali until the gutters run with blood. Kali is usually portrayed in her fierce aspect as a blue or black woman with many arms who sticks out her tongue. She wears an opera length necklace of severed heads and sometimes a skirt of severed human arms. To the Western eye she is at the minimum disturbing and not someone you would be eager to trust, but ask any cab driver in Calcutta and he will tell you, “Kali is a good mother. Bring her a goat and ask her for what you need. She will give it to you.”
She is either sticking out her tongue or biting it in embarrassment because when her “husband” Shiva tried to calm her rage, she twisted in his grip and committed the appalling solecism of stepping on his chest.
This is the neighbor of the Christian hospice of Mother Teresa. Every morning I went to work there, six days a week, I found the contrast between the two religions as bracing as a dip in the Atlantic off the coast of Scotland.
On my first day I found, as my friend has told me, that all I had to do was walk in and work. Someone showed me where to lock up my things. I put a box of gloves I had bought on the counter, pulled on a pair, grabbed a rag and entered the women´s section– the house is divided into a male and a female section with the kitchen and laundry in between—where skeletal women of unknowable ages were lying on hard beds with plastic under the sheets stained and pooled with yellow diarrhea. Many could neither stand nor walk. Those who were capable of locomotion of any kind, including walking on their knees or hopping went down the center aisle on their own power to the bathing room. One woman walked in a squat; she could not straighten up but she was adamant and angry if offered assistance.
The nuns ran the kitchen and the laundry but the foreigners with a little assistance bathed the women, washed the nightgowns, sheets and blankets in home-made lye soap, wrang them out and carried them upstairs where they were hung out on the roof. From there one could look down on the Kali temple and the lively very un-Christian neighborhood.
Part of the Mother Teresa philosophy is that the hospice should be run at the level of a household in the neighborhood—no washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern devices or conveniences. No medicines or doctors to speak of either. A local doctor did turn up once a month. Sometimes, rarely, someone in Calcutta would donate medicine; therefore, the leftover, out of date medicines the foreigners brought were of use. With very rare exceptions the women were of subnormal intelligence due to lives of malnutrition.
It was a place to die in. The nuns received calls from people who noticed that the beggar on their corner was comatose or that someone was lying on the floor of Howrah Station unconscious. Volunteers went and picked these people up.
It was a severe place. The inmates were prayed over but not actively encouraged to become Christians since they understood nothing. There was one Christian patient. She said grace before each meal. The others had no idea what this was but knew you didn’t eat until it was over.
Death was constant, not every day, but every few days, someone would die. I spent time caring for a woman whose main symptom seemed to be infected bed sores which made her moan. She died of them as I sat by her feeling as useless as if I had been trying to cure her with chamomile tea and rice crispies.
Once while I was there two women recovered and left—they had been temporarily saved from malnutrition and starvation—but although they were joyous at leaving the hospice what was ahead of them but more starvation and malnutrition.
The atmosphere was grim, of that variety of Christianity, which in its earnestness seems incapable of imagining even small pleasures or a space in which laughter or beauty might breathe for a moment. Sorrow and sadomasochistic sainthood are its themes. I met the Mother Superior, a woman dedicated to Mother Teresa’s principals, without imagination, and rule bound.
Some years later I returned to Calcutta where I was joining a group of friends to do a trek in Sikkim. Arriving a day early I decided I would go over and do a day at Mother Teresa’s. The very air seemed different when I walked in. I was astonished to see in the arches above the women’s beds cages with birds singing and aquariums in which bright fish darted amount colored rocks.
There was a new Mother Superior. She asked me to help with changing the bandages of patient who had been severely burned when her nylon sari went up in flames as she bent over her cooking fire.
“Hold her hands and talk to her while we change her bandages,” the Mother told me. “She thinks foreigners are a sort of television.” I took the woman’s hands, looked into her dark brown eyes and said, ”Let me tell you if our places were exchanged, I would be screaming this place down to its foundations. You aren’t making a sound, not a moan. How do you do that? I couldn’t.”
When they had re-bandaged her, they asked her, to my amazement, what side she wanted to lie on—back, front, left, right. They didn’t approve of her choice but they put her on that side. I was amazed. The nuns under the earlier management, treated patients as objects, they were never asked anything, and if a patient protested, or cried out under treatment they were scolded.
Then the Mother told me that the woman was eating very little and was likely to die. Some one had donated some sweets—Indian sweets have a decibel level of sweetness that can only be heard by saccharine bats—which they wanted me to feed her since sugar was the one thing she ate. I spoon-fed her the entire hyper-sugar desert while she stared at me.
I asked the Mother Superior what happened to the women who never recovered enough to go out of the hospice but did not die. They are sent to an institution in the country she told me.
“We have tried to teach them things but their brains are so damaged by starvation and malnourishment that you cannot even teach them to peel garlic.”
I told her I thought the birds and fish were an exceptional idea. She became a little flustered and said defensively, “But we don’t take care of them or buy them. The foreigners buy them, feed them and clean the cages and aquariums.”
No Mother Teresa would not have approved of birds trilling in the hospice. But what a difference a thinking person can make in an institution.
To return to Barcelona the line for the Sisters of Charity soup kitchen at the side of Sant Augusti is now enormous, following the side of the church and then snaking in front of the church and spilling across the Plaza de Sant Augusti.
And to return to a Barcelonan convent, one morning this week I heard the rushing sound of debris hurtling down a chute. They are gutting the convent next door. My upstairs neighbor tells me the convent is being reorganized as a halfway house for abused women. Nuns will run it. However, I don’t suppose the nuns I knew will return. The gardening nun’s garden also went down the chute. But if she does return I am going to La Rambla and investing in a garden for her. I would love to do that.
The swifts have returned but they do not come to the back of my building. I think this is because the French pilot has turned his huge terrace into a sort of spa cum Coney Island. There are hammocks, canvas beach chairs, tables, a wadding pool, cushions, planters full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini. And he has ordered more things from Amazon. I don’t think the swifts approve.
And the court of the Hospital is now open. At the moment the homeless have not moved in so that it is a quiet, enchanting place to walk through smelling the single white roses and looking up at the last of the oranges clinging to the branches overhead.