FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

March 17: Birthday Blog at Eighty-Eight

March 21, 2017

Tags: birthday

It’s 5:40 p.m., and I’ve been thinking, on and off during the day I have been alone with Mr. Taksi, about whether to write anything to mark the day. My son and daughter-in-law have come up from Washington, and my daughter has flown in from Kansas, and I have beautiful flowers—see left—from my grand-daughter in Los Angeles, Dr. Florence who is expecting a baby this summer. And various friends have been invited to a party my daughters are giving in cousin Lori Fox’s apartment. Various people have called to wish me a happy day and year to come. And I’ve been thinking about whether there will be another birthday…. Gloomy thoughts? Well, yes, but realistic, for I am able to do less and less physically.

Let me try a specific example. A year ago I went to Kansas to see my daughter and the great grandchildren. Perhaps I used a cane. But I could get around. I wasn’t taking an hour to dress because it was so difficult to get my limbs to work in order to get socks on my feet and trousers up my legs. And I didn’t have two walkers. In rehab, darling Tashi who works on me cheerfully, and who insists that what I need is to strengthen my muscles, says she sees progress from week to week. But I have the longer view in mind, and so I am skeptical.

Will I wind up in a wheelchair? Perhaps not by next year, since I can still clean up the kitchen, dress myself, straighten the bed, feed the cat, water the plants. I depend on others to vacuum, keep the kitty litter in order, and for other things. Until this past week, I had been doing my own marketing. I’m not sure where that stands right now. And I’ve been keeping my dental appointments on my own, with the help of car service or taxis. But I won’t be surprised if the pace of decreasing debilitation hastens, though when I suggest this to Tashi, she said she doesn’t believe I have neuropathy, since I am still sensitive to feelings if she touches areas of my feet or legs.

Perhaps this is an inappropriate way to celebrate a birthday at 88. Perhaps I should be grateful for the years I have had travelling the world, working on significant book projects with talented and impressive Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Japanese. I am grateful. But I am also human enough not to want the losses I have begun to suffer.

A Surprise from Mr. Taksi

March 10, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi

This will be mostly a few photos to illuminate what happened a few days ago when Martina Grant, a masseuse therapist turned up with her dog, Charlie. I thought that Mr. Taksi, my still relatively new cat, would hide in the deepest closet he could find. But I was totally wrong in my assessment, for he wanted to see Charlie, perhaps even to play with him, though Charlie was not (yet?) interested and stayed close to Martina, even deigning to curl up on her lap.

And I must add: this was not the business of a few minutes, but we two humans talked for nearly an hour, during which the two protagonists came closer and closer to each other. Martina was certain that Taksi had been reared with dogs. And as I have said several times, the only information I have is that he was found “on the street.” Enjoy the photos. What should we do next?
Mr. Taksi and Charlie

Mr. Taksi’s World, Number 2

March 4, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi

This cat has been living with me since the 2nd of January, and for the first time yesterday, on the 3rd of March, he stepped out into the hall for half a minute. No, he doesn’t seem to me to be longing for the street from which he was rescued by Bide-a-Wee. And he’s still giving me laughs, especially when he dashes into an open closet and refuses to emerge until I’ve closed the door and departed. And of course I do return fairly soon.

But what I’ve been doing lately is trying to teach Taksi a few of what dog people call “commands.” Can cats learn to “sit” and “stay”? Do they understand “no,” or is it only the tone with which one shouts “no” that penetrates a cat’s brain? Here’s my first report, and I will also send along more photos, which is what appeals most, I am told. My daughter tells me also that my great-grand daughters (ages six and eight) are not satisfied with the photos. They want a video!! Imagine that. I’m not sure I can produce a video. At least not without some instruction….

So here is my report on language and Taksi. He certainly knows “No,” especially when I shout it at him multiple times as he is tearing the couch or one of my rugs to pieces. And does he make sense of the fact that when he uses either of his two scratching posts I am silent. I am certain it’s hard for him to understand that one rug in one room is all his to tear up, but two others in two other rooms are not to be scratched at. So I have made little progress in the area of scratching.

But around food I feel something is happening. He gets very excited and since he is tall and can stand and knock the dish out of my hand as I am trying to give it to him, I’ve taken to saying “sit” many times until he actually does sit down, yes, on his place mat, and then I’ve gone on to the word “stay.” And I see a shift in his eye and he seems, I want to believe, to understand what I am asking him to do. And he holds his position for at least three or four seconds, so far.

I know there are many cat lovers out there. Have you taught your cats some behavior based on language?

Mr. Taksi's World

February 17, 2017

Tags: depression, Mr. Taksi

If you’ve ever had a cat, you know what I mean when I say that cats live in a world of their own. My apartment is on the 24th floor, and there is precious little going on outside my windows. But not to Mr. Taksi. His favorite spot is the especially wide windowsill in the living room. And he makes getting to that spot a challenge to be conquered every day in a new manner. I’ll try to illuminate with a picture or two, but only those who know cats will be able to envision how delicately Mr. Taksi has to step among succulents so as to avoid knocking them from their stems.

There is no single way to get to the place where he can spread out, and getting there is half the fun. I’d have to run a video for you to see how it happens, but there are other things to talk about in what I am calling Mr. Taksi’s World. There is the question of closets: I have an abundance of them, and they open either with sliding doors or with ordinary doors. Some of them are large enough for a cat to get lost in. And Taksi has been locked in almost every one of those closets, since among his skills is an ability to slip through a door even when I think I am watching for him.

And then there is the question of eating. Mr. Taksi won’t accept that I have offered him a place mat on which I would place his food in a beautiful Japanese bowl. Not on his life. He treats the place mat as his resting place, even when it’s crammed into the corner of the kitchen where he’s fed. He demonstrates twice a day that he must sit on the place mat, no matter my wishes.

Finally, a word about depression for those who know that virus. It’s not gone, but it’s not grabbed me as before. For this cat makes me laugh out loud, and if you’re laughing, it’s hard to be depressed at the same moment. He makes me laugh by turning everything he can into a toy: favorites include the ends of pens, crinkly paper squeezed into a ball, an old sock rolled into a ball; in short, anything that can be batted around the apartment from wooden floors to carpets and back again. He’s knocked some things under the couch and the fridge, where they are inaccessible, but he hasn’t forgotten them. Searching for them, he comes up with his white front paws turned charcoal. And my hollering “no, no, no” dissuades him only temporarily. To be continued….

Journal/Blog/Journal (*See below)

January 23, 2017

Tags: depression, health

It’s 9 p.m., Friday, January 20, 2017. Yes, I haven’t written a blog about my new cat, his beauty and his “talking” to me as though he had some Siamese streak in him, my calling him Mr. Taksi, in part because of my taxi-driving father I loved. I’ve had the cat since January 3, although two days after he arrived, his eyes told me he was ill. At the same time, whatever is wrong with me, especially my ability to walk, has been growing worse so that I cried in rehab, not only because of the pain, but because it all felt so useless: walking three steps forward and metaphorically falling four steps backward. So what to do?

Victoria Pajak (Vicki), the woman who has been coming to my apartment at eight p.m. to give Mr. Taksi his evening eye drops and throat drops, knew nothing of my state of mind, but she chose one moment last night to tell me about her two cats, both of whom had been strays, and one of whom was totally blind. The two, normal and blind had been adopted together and they had grown up as close friends and delightful pets.

So, yes, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, at least for an evening. But it’s hard that I can’t pick up my cat—my arms are no longer strong enough to hold a 13-pound cat. Nor can I get down on the floor with him. And it will take some time for him to learn that he can have petting from me only when on the couch or the bed.

As for my own physical state, I’m trying to get an appointment with a couple of neurologists and hear their takes on neuropathy, if that’s what I’ve got (along with depression). I am trying to think about ways to be cheerful—and there’s politics to depress me daily, so that’s not the route to follow. Suggestions? I have used the usual: yes, I have my brain, and my fingers still work at the keyboard; I live in New York and there are taxis to get me to appointments; I still have a few old friends and I have made a few young new friends. I have a comfortable apartment. And I don’t have cancer or Alzheimer’s. So, Florence, I talk to myself: cheer up!

*Note: I’ve been typing journals usually every day, since returning from Mississippi’s Freedom Schools in August, 1964 and 1965. And long before computers, I typed journals on a typewriter. When I travelled, I wrote in tiny notebooks (and I have more than 100 of them). Later, of course I had a laptop when I traveled. These journals were both private as well as political. I would not have thought of sending them out to the world. But that’s where a blog has to go, and I was urged by Feminist Press to start a blog after my memoir appeared. It was hard not to confuse the blog with the journal, but I worked that out. I’m writing this today because this is the first of what I can call a blog/journal. It’s more personal than usual, or at least that’s how it seems to me. It’s also being filed with the journals, not the blogs.

End-of-Year Letter for 2016

December 19, 2016

Tags: health, election, Feminist Press, family, Yoya, Florence (granddaughter)

For at least two decades I have been writing an end-of-year letter and sending it out via e-mail to friends around the world, including especially the African friends who worked on our four huge Feminist Press anthologies, Women Writing Africa. I am also going to post the letter this year on my website (www.florencehowe.com).

Let me say, first, that I had hoped this letter would celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory as feminist, humanist, and an experienced internationalist. Some of you who will read this were present in the Chinese auditorium two decades ago, as I was, when Hillary spoke that famous sentence: “Women’s rights are human rights; and human rights are women’s rights.” So our work will have to continue, and I am certain that Hillary will be on the front lines of that work.

My personal news is mixed. I continue to miss my active life of walking and swimming, not to mention travelling. Despite a dozen doctors I have seen, there is no real diagnosis, but only placebos, some of which have back-fired and been therefore abandoned. Right now I am counting on rehab and a clever, hands-on therapist to strengthen my right leg so that I might be able to walk with only a cane again. But I want distant friends to know that I remain in my own apartment, and I have made various adjustments so that I can be independent.

I write a journal every day which goes into a folder. And once a week or at least three times a month I write a blog which is posted on my website that I continue to maintain, with the help of Jen Petras, my dear Ohio friend. Writing keeps me sane, I think, and it is, as for many people, one way to work out their depression. I’ve also been writing poems, some of which I may decide to post on the blog as well.

What else do I do (aside from seeing doctors)? I go to the opera and to theatre, usually with Helene Goldfarb, occasionally also with friends Shirley Mow, Elyse Hilton, Don Thomas, Jorge Cao. Elyse also visits to talk literature and to help me walk when the weather permits. AnnJ looks after my needs in certain magical ways, and she visits frequently, given that she lives in Washington, D.C.

The most striking family news is that granddaughter Dr. Florence Wright, named after me, moved to Los Angeles almost a year ago and was married last week to Jason Neville, a Louisiana-bred city planner who works for the mayor. Other family members continue to thrive in Kansas, Mississippi, D.C., and even Brooklyn, though except for AnnJ, I see them rarely.

What do I do aside from entertainment? I sit on four Boards, though I am not as active as I used to be. I still long for real work, though I am also a realist about its disappearance from my life. Occasionally, I have proofread or copyedited for the Feminist Press. I am very proud of the fact that six books published by the Press have had favorable reviews in the New York Times this year.

Finally, perhaps you are wondering how I manage being alone at 87. What do I do that gives me pleasure? Sometimes great pleasure? It’s reading and writing, of course. A good movie sometimes—I saw Rainman last night here in my study. A good play—Heidigger, which I’ve seen twice, was excellent, as was Master Harold and the Boys. As for books, the list would be too long for this letter. I continue to be a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, have read all his books.

And yes, there is the writing. Why don’t I get on with it? Why do I write only journals and blogs? It’s like asking the question about the election: why were so many people taken in by a fast-talking, know-nothing egomaniac (and these are kind words for the man)? There are many answers to these questions, mostly not heroic but mundane. The best I can do today is to say what my favorite diva sings, “I’m still here.”

Finally, I want to dedicate this blog to the little dog who kept me company when Don and Jorge travelled. Yoya died at ten of heart disease. The happiest, sweetest bundle of fur just keeled over upstairs, after a walk. She has been replaced—yes, it’s possible with pooches—by Fefa, hardly six months old. I know you will like the photos of Yoya.

Lucky Me: Relief from Depression Number One (With Two Not Far Behind)

December 12, 2016

Tags: depression

Everyone loves presents, including me, and especially when the presents are genuine surprises. I was passing the main lobby desk, on my way out to an event certain to cheer me up, when I heard that I had flowers. Reluctantly, I said they’d have to wait. I assumed I’d be out only for an hour or so.

I was going to the Colony Club, a most uncommon destination for me, accompanied by Therese (Te) Revesz, who, to my surprise, was one of my students at Goucher College in the 1960s. I taught at that expensive girls’ college (now co-ed) from 1960 to 1971. I have often said that those years were my best teaching years. During that decade I learned, especially from my experience in a Mississippi Freedom School, how to teach so that students learned not only who they were and what privileges they had, but how to write about the non-equal world they inhabited. This was, of course, the decade in which women and girls began to see themselves differently. Though I’ve written in my memoir about how much teaching meant to me, I have not exhausted that subject.

At the Colony Club, I was to meet several dozen Goucher alumna who had graduated in 1968, and who had been my students at some point during the years between 1964 and 1968. They approached me singly or in pairs, remembering Freshman English and the courses I taught in British and American Poetry. One student recalled that a whole course on William Butler Yeats had sent her to Ireland to visit all the areas he wrote about. Both heartening and embarrassing, they remembered more than I could, and claimed that my courses “changed their lives.”

I hardly know what to say when students make such claims, but I try to understand that they are also being kind to an old lady, since I remember so little in detail of the kinds of courses they were describing to me. Indeed, as I sit here and type, I am remembering with greater clarity the undergraduate courses I took at Hunter College with Professor Pearl Wilson (in Greek tragedy), for example, or in Modern British Literature with Katherine Gatch and Marion Witt. Did they change my life?

And now I come to the second half of what I’ve promised: the flowers waiting for me. The first batch were African Violets, deep purple flowers and deep green leaves distributed in three yellow clay pots, needing only some water, and with a sweet note from the two guys in my life, Don Thomas and Jorge Cao, and their new puppy, Fefa; the second was a large pot filled with soil out of which peeped a bulb, also needing only water. The bulb came from Elyse Hilton, a relatively new friend who came to share her poetry (and prose) and to be my walking companion. Our good times together continue.

Yes, I continue to wince as I hear about the military men, millionaire bankers, and anti-labor, anti-women, anti-minority others who will fill Trump’s cabinet. But I am also perking up, ready to fight back.

Depression and the Kindness of Strangers and Family

November 29, 2016

Tags: depression, family

I took three taxis today. Yes, though I am going broke, I have no other way of moving around New York City, since I am not mobile enough to deal with public buses or subways. I continue to be struck by the kindness of these taxi drivers, since stopping for me means that they need to get out of their seats and actively help me and my walker enter their cabs. And sometimes it doesn’t work and they need to leave me and move on. Never have I heard an unkind word; never has anyone been anything but kind and considerate of my feelings.

And of course that made me think about the people close to me, many of who are distinctly inconvenienced by my state, as well as, and I am guessing here, disappointed that things are not as easy as they used to be. I am not who I used to be. And perhaps I am on a roller coaster that moves only in one direction….downwards.

Today, I saw the young man, Aki, who has been cutting my hair for the last ten or fifteen years, during which time he has married and become the father of two darling little girls, now six months and three years. I made a sweater and hat for the first little girl, nothing yet for the second, but she may have used them as well. Aki suggested quietly that perhaps the next time I need a haircut he would come to me, since the ice and snow would not be possible for me to traverse. Even today, it was difficult to get up the cement steps to the hallway and then into an elevator. And a very kind young woman offered to see me downstairs and to get a taxi for me, since I was going on to see dear Dr. Charney, the neurologist who was so brilliant about Mariam Chamberlain’s emergency treatment that she lived her last six years in relative physical comfort.

Dr. Charney has also been kind, considerate, and clever with regard to what ails me, though he also has not offered what isn’t possible. For me, his comforting assurance that I was not a candidate for Alzheimer’s has been most important. I’ve often said that I could live with disability as long as I could use my fingers at a keyboard. And that is now where I am. But I can’t walk normally and no one can tell me why not. Dr. Charney once again offered rehab to me. I tell him my feet are sometime burning hot and he murmurs neuropathy and offers me a tiny dose of something that may stop the heat. Take these and call me on Friday, he says.

Where am I going?--you may be asking. I began with the kindness of strangers, moved on to people whom I have known for some years, but the person in my head when I began to write was AnnJ, my daughter-in-law, who spent her days researching walkers to find one that she knew would please me. See the photo of the walker both opened and closed. It goes to the opera and the theatre quite easily, as well as to doctors, and even to a grocery store for a couple of things. And I haven’t been thinking of Thanksgiving, though there must have been some thought of the holiday in my spirit tonight as I sit here and enjoy the movement of my fingers on the keyboard.

Enjoy tomorrow….though this message may reach you days later. We can’t go on mourning. We need action, vigilance, intelligence, and planning for the future….Would that I could heed my own words!

Deep Depression

November 22, 2016

Tags: depression, election

Like you, I have been sleepless and numb, without appetite for food or news. When I’m at the computer, I can edge out only a few lines of Journal, not even half a page. And I say nothing worth remembering. So I am trying today, in the last hour before I have to leave to meet Helene for dinner at a restaurant called “Lincoln,” before seeing Manon Lescaut, an opera by Puccini, part of our annual series. It’s a tragic love story, like most opera, and I don’t think it’s been done often. At least I’m sure I never have seen/heard it.

So yes, as people say, “I do get out of the house.” But not joyously, not with any expectations that the experience will “help.” There is no “help” in sight for at least two years, if not four. And the weight of what has just happened to U.S. politics is crushing, at least for me, and perhaps it’s that I’m so old, so old, that there is little fight left in me for what has to be done. My grandchild—the youngest one of them, still in her twenties—has already been in demonstrations, and plans to attend the huge rally in D.C. in January. I’m glad to know that, and sad that my days for such actions have passed, and that this generation will have to fight all over again for what we thought we had won for them.

So, yes, I’ve written more than one paragraph, and I seem able to keep going. What to say for comfort? Thanksgiving is three days away, and we must give thanks for the eight years of President Obama and for his recent vow to pitch in during the next four years. And I am sure that Hillary will also do her part. Perhaps they and Bernie and others in the Senate will be able to diminish the power of the Republicans at the two-year point.

I am looking at bursts of sunlight lighting up a cloud-filled dark sky. An omen? A wish for an omen. Please tell me good news. I want to see Angelica Merkel reelected. Am I losing it?

Ellen Bass’s poem she sent out recently is called “Any Common Desolation.” There was a bit of comfort in it for me. Perhaps for you too.


Any Common Desolation
can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

Ellen Bass

Post Election Wednesday

November 9, 2016

And I’ve not slept since Monday night. I wanted to write blogs from Spain, and it never happened. Then I was going to write some catch-ups as soon as I returned. But I came home unable to crack the jetlag, and fell apart from lack of sleep. No blogs, not even journals.

I was really sick, some kind of virus probably picked up on the plane, or so two doctors agreed, and I was given some treatment and began to feel better. Just before election day I had voted absentee and so I spent the actual day watching others, determined to stay up and see Hillary win.

And all of you know how that turned out. For me, I found myself violently ill, ill enough to make me feel I would not survive the night. Yes, I survived and made it to my next doctor’s appointment, and even to another meeting.

How do I feel? Sad, a bit broken, exhausted. I am still alive and still sentient. And wanting to hear Hillary’s speech today. I promise a real blog within the next week.

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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