FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

Reunions

February 20, 2018

Tags: friends, health

It’s the Monday (Feb 19?) after a week of informal reunions with people I feel close to but don’t see often, itself an understatement. I can’t remember the last time, for example, I saw Nancy Hoffman, with whom I edited a volume of stories about Women Working for a huge Feminist Press project of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was one of a dozen books funded by Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the NEH, and it is still in print and still used in schools as a text. Nancy has worked on high school education projects for many years, and for many of which she also served on the Feminist Press Board of Directors. She was at Brown University when that institution decided to buy my papers and the Feminist Press papers.

Deborah Rosenfelt, lately a retired professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, was my student at Goucher College, and later, a staff member and an author at the Feminist Press, and of course Debby and Nancy were friends. They have made some plans to work together again on the disposal of my papers at Brown, where Nancy was working as assistant to the university’s president when I agreed to sell my papers and the Press’s to Brown. As some of you know, there has been no work on my papers at Brown.

Both of these women know Ellen Bass, the poet and the Goucher student with whom I edited the first No More Masks! She was absent this week, but plans to be here in New York in April, and perhaps we’ll have another reunion then.

Of course it’s wonderful for me to enjoy such occasions.

This one began in part as a mutual interest in hearing Marilynne Robinson speak at the 92nd Street Y about the new volume of essays she was publishing. And we did that, after a festive dinner. Nancy, Debby, and I were joined by my daughter-in-law, AnnJ Gumbinner, and by Elyse Hilton, a student of Ellen Bass’s. Elyse was the initial instigator who bought tickets to the lecture for me and for herself many months ago. Had I been my once normal self, we would have continued the festivities that evening after the lecture. But I was tired after the exertion of the dinner and the walk to the lecture hall as well as the lecture itself. Frankly, it was not really a “lecture.” Robinson read from a few pages of printed text and then sat on stage with a man who asked several questions while “Y” staff collected other questions from audience members.

Frankly I cannot remember one question or one answer, but I was glad to be there and glad to have sight of Robinson’s voice and demeanor. And Elyse gave me a copy of the essays which I will write about when I can. Most of all, I am glad to report that I enjoyed the evening and suffered no ill effects afterwards. Maybe I am coming back to “normal.”

11 a.m., Thursday, February 15, 2018

February 19, 2018

Tags: health, Alzheimer's

Haven’t been here for too long, and I want to record that I actually went out of the house for two events, theatre events, I mean. Last Saturday to Encores for a medley of old musicals that was very enjoyable. And of course it was wonderful for me to actually get out of this apartment at last. And on this past Tuesday, again with Helene, I saw Eve Ensler’s latest one-woman play, a battle with cancer. She did it alone on a 90-minute staged performance, elegant, amazing, terrifying, and exhausting.

No incident on Saturday, but scary incidents on Tuesday: frozen legs at the house so that Toni, the afternoon doorman, had to lift me up and place me into the Carmel limo. Yes, he’s very strong. Once in the car, I couldn’t help worrying about how I would get out of the car. But then I could, and I could make my way into the theatre. And just when I thought all was well, since all I had to do was go up one step to my seat, I was frozen again, and could not lift my leg up the one step to my seat. So then a kind usher gave me a seat in the front row by asking people to change with me.

I watched the play’s 90 minutes with unswerving attention. Yes, I took a couple of those pills the neurologist suggested I take an hour before theatre begins. And that worked well enough for me to enjoy the play right to the end. “Enjoy” is the odd word here, since the enemy was cancer and the text was explicit, cruel, tortured, tense, without a second of relaxation. It was an amazing performance, grueling for the actor, and without a whisper anywhere in that hushed audience.

And now I am thinking about going to a lecture by Marilynne Robinson at the 92nd Street Y, not only with Elyse Hilton who bought our tickets more than a month ago, but also with daughter’-in-law AnnJ, and with former Goucher student Debby Rosenfelt, now retired professor at the University of Maryland, and former co-editor Nancy Hoffman, who used to be a Feminist Press Board member, perhaps even a founding Board member, and for decades one of the people closest to the reformation of U.S. high school education. AnnJ was quick to find a restaurant nearby, so that we can have a bit of time together before the lecture. And next time I will write about Marilynne Robinson.

Written February 15; revised February 17

End of Year Thank You, Begun on December 15, 2017

January 31, 2018

Tags: health

I’m early this year, or I will be if I manage to write this page. Up to Friday, the fifteenth of September, 2017, I was moving right along to decent health. But on that day, something changed, when a careless or perhaps irritated cab driver threw my folded walker into the back of the cab directly into my left side (instead of putting it in the trunk with the groceries). Since that day, I have been an invalid, more or less confined to my apartment. Three months of no plays, films, ballet, opera, even dinners or lunches out, no visits to friends.

Yes, there have been a few visits to doctors, an X-ray, an MRI, even a visit from a doctor. But I cancelled a dental cleaning as not important enough (and now I’m a bit worried about that). I have many people to thank, including the heroism of Don Thomas who got me to a sports medicine doctor on Yom Kippur where I had an x-ray and a diagnosis that remained in place—an injury to the soft tissue around my left waist—until I had an MRI a couple of weeks ago. Then it was clear that I had also had an injury to a small spinal bone which was healing, and still a bit painful.

In addition to Don, Lucy Cajamarca, who has been my housekeeper for as long as I’ve been on West End Avenue, has kept me, my apartment, and the cat, Mr. Taksi, clean, sane, and even relatively cheerful. And then there’s Elyse Hilton, a writer and a friend, who has often anticipated my needs for company, reading, and literary conversation, as well as mundane help on the computer. And Paul Pombo, my accountant and good friend, who can unscramble even the worst of messes created by me and Microsoft 10. Always present is Helene Goldfarb, general guardian who goes to doctors with me and also cares for the Feminist Press, partly in my place.

Unfortunately for me, family members do not live in New York City, but in Washington D.C., Kansas, and Mississippi. Alice, like Ann J, is allergic to cats, and so their visits are somewhat curtailed. Most amazing was the visit at Thanksgiving from granddaughter and namesake Dr. Florence and husband Jason, who live in Los Angeles, so that I might meet their new baby, Paloma. And you know, if you’ve been reading my blog, that I never sent this one out. But I’m doing it now, and I’m trying to find a way to continue the blog, move it away from my physical illness and back to writing about books and politics again, or friends, some of whom are writers. I need the blog, even if no one reads it. I need it because I need to move my fingers as well as my brain. I need it because I also enjoy people who write comments. I wish some of you would be harder on me, would scold me for collapsing into mush. So I have Parkinson’s. There are worse things. I need some of that old fearlessness I once had. So feel free to scold me. I need scolding. Badly.

(begun in December, 2017; finished January 28, 2018)

Trying Again

January 2, 2018

Tags: family, health

At Thanksgiving, I enjoyed special visitors from California: my granddaughter , Dr. Florence, her husband Jason, and their very new baby, Paloma, my great granddaughter. And I was amazed not only by their determination to visit, but their decision to take a red-eye with the baby and all the equipment they'd need for winter in New York. In addition, I was touched by their caring, their concern that I might not be around another year. (I will be, I am telling you.)

So here are the members of this young family, with part of their equipment in hand and their nonchalance about the red eye. Like many American families, their relatives are spread out across the country, and they mean to see all of them, even if not all together. At Christmas, they visited with Jason's family in Louisiana and New Orleans, and Florence's mother in Mississippi joined them for part of the time. They'd already visited with Florence's brother Jack's family in Kansas, which includes two more young daughters, who are my great grandchildren.

And to those of you who are wondering about my state of health, I promise to get back to bookish blogs very soon. Yes, I am up and around and walking and trying to rebuild my life. Old age, as the saying goes, is not for "sissies." And complaining is useless. So here I go again.

Ending the Silence

November 29, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi, health

Taksi is here beside me, stretched out on the space I’ve made for him on my desk. He wants supper, and it is past six p.m., but he will wait patiently, for I want to write this. Today is a special day. For the first time in two months I have sat in my desk chair and opened the computer. I did it to order food for Mr. Taksi, and some new bowls, but here I am, trying at least to write enough to tell the few people still looking for my blogs that I am not dead, that I might even be a little bit alive and ready to rejoin the human race.

What’s been wrong? Briefly, it all began with an accident on a day I felt great. I even felt as I began the day that I was going to be the person I used to be. My focus was on marketing, on my own, using my walker to get to the market, and then a shopping cart to collect my purchases. The cashier than called for an aide to help me find a cab and get my bags into the trunk along with my walker. I was seated on the right side of the taxi’s back seat when the driver chose to open the taxi’s left door and throw the walker in its folded state at my body. And there it hit my waistline on the left of my body. Yes, I felt a pain but could not imagine the problems that followed.

Within five minutes I was getting out of the cab, someone was stacking the grocery bags on a cart, and I was taking my shopping into my apartment. Yes, I continued to feel some pain, but I thought it would quickly disappear. I had to get some things into the fridge, and I had an appointment at the Rehab gym across the street.

By the time I got to the gym, the pain was intense. I was in tears as I showed the therapist where the pain was coming from. She suggested ice, which was comforting, and then she decided to walk me home, urging me to ice the area and to see a doctor if the pain did not diminish.

Within two days I could hardly walk at all without breath-taking pain. And even though it was then an important Jewish holiday, my dear friend, Don Thomas organized a driver with a car and a wheel chair to take me to a sports medicine building where I had x-rays and was diagnosed. I had a soft tissue injury, which would take considerable time to heal, given that I was 88, not 18 or even 48.

This was the beginning. Why did I cave in? Why did I not use my usual resources? Why did I seemingly disappear? Can I understand what happened? Can I ever recover?

August Update: Drear Days Saved by a Cat

August 30, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi, Parkinson's

Yes, I haven’t written in some time. Parkinson’s is no fun, especially when it seems to be “better” some days and then “worse.” And both so hard to describe. But Mr. Taksi doesn’t seem to let anything stop him from growing and from finding new actions that move me to laughter, at least a smile, and sometimes a real belly laugh, like the one I got watching him gain a new perch in “his” bathroom.

I was aware of his interest in the sink, and hoped he wouldn’t try to get into it, since I thought it would end with my having to get him to a doctor to reset a few bones. It’s not only high off the floor. It has nothing to rest on: it’s a bowl with the thinnest of edges. And why, I thought to myself, would he want to get up there in the first place? I was, of course, not thinking with the mind of Mr. Taksi, who seems to walk around my sizable apartment, with his head angled upward, as though wondering what he might try next.

I know he can leap easily up onto the kitchen counter in a single, elegant movement. He can stand on his two legs at the sink and knock something out of my hands—that’s how tall he is stretched out. But why would he want to get up to this bathroom sink, when he doesn’t want to be in water, and when he would then have the trouble of getting out of it again? Well, it’s clear now that I don’t have the mind of a cat, especially this one. So you can see it in photos. His contentment seems to be saying he’s happy to have that problem solved. On to other things, though he does try that leap at least once a day, usually when I am using that bathroom.

As for my bathroom, nothing deters him there, since the sink is built into a cabinet and there are areas seemingly waiting for him. My electric toothbrush is merely music to his ears—he’s not going to be sent off by such piffle, and he simply waits until I’m through to continue his investigations of everything on and around this room. His favorite space is the walk-in shower, and I imagine he thinks he’s being helpful when he pulls off another loose tile from the shower floor, since he makes sure I see his prize, and of course I do thank him for his courtesy.

Blog on the Absence of Blogs

July 27, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi, depression

Usually, my reason for silence is depression. I don’t want people to know I’m depressed. I feel guilty for feeling depressed. I’m so privileged, I tell myself, I have no right to feel depressed. But there it is: I’m depressed, and after some silence, when I expect that the small group of readers who look at my blog already suspect that depression has me in grip again, I confess. So boring, as grey as the world outside my window today, half in rain, half in fog.

I’ll try some comfort. Two weeks ago, I passed the half-year point with Mr. Taksi, the cat who was to save me from depression. And yes, he still has the power to make me laugh even when I am supposedly teaching him something or even when I am severely cross with him for absconding with my favorite pen or pencil and hiding them so that he can’t get to them either. It’s clear that they won’t turn up until I buy a new couch. And he continues to follow me from room to room, and sometimes it’s because it’s nearing the time for dinner, though other times, it’s that Mr. Taksi wants to play.

Other symptoms: I don’t even try to write poems. I write boring journals that say only that I am depressed, or that I’ve broken a dish.

My friends continue to ask me about going to the movies, and I continue to say no, I’m not interested. So what have I done for the past two weeks?

This is a bit laughable: I’ve been reading—for the second time—The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. About a host of characters the most interesting of whom live in an idyllic old age home. No, I don’t believe it depressed me. I won’t blame the book, though it certainly has features that one might label “dark”—the treatment of Japanese during the Second World War, the sexual torture of one Eastern European young girl who is trying to leave that history behind her. And, of course, the inevitable death of the major character. So, yes, it’s a novel chock full of life as well as death and I can’t blame it for my depression.

And I will decorate with photos of Mr. Taksi…perhaps they will make this worth reading. (written on July 14, 2017)

Six Months of Mr. Taksi, the Resident Cat

July 5, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi

If I’m so pleased by Taksi, why hadn’t I moved earlier to adopt a cat? Three people very close to me are allergic to cats: my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my best friend, Helene. But they’ve understood, especially since he makes me laugh heartily at least once a day, often many times. And he now follows me around the apartment, settling into a nap if that’s what he needs, but waking up and moving with me, should I move.

And yes, he now wants to know what I am eating, and he’s interested in tasting whatever it is, though his palate is fairly limited. But he’s no nag. When I say no, he goes off.

Which brings me to language. Can cats, like dogs, learn verbal signals? I’m trying to answer that question, and I’ll tell you what I know at this six month point. When it’s eating time, Taksi is very excited and he used to stand up and try to knock the plate out of my hand. He’s over three feet when he stands up on his hind legs and he’s strong. So I’ve taught him the following words: “Sit” and “Stay.” And most of the time they work: I can actually get the food almost to the floor before Taksi moves to it. He’s now revised that little action to his sitting on the stepstool that I have at the end of the kitchen. And he’s dragged the place mat, meant to be beneath his food, to the top of the stepstool, where he sits. And it’s clear that he knows “Sit” and “Stay.”

He also knows “no,” especially when enunciated with volume and a special tone. He’ll drop something he’s carrying if I shout “no.” And he also knows the word “out,” issued usually from my bedroom, if he’s banging the venetian blinds to wake me and to amuse himself. He’s learned not to do that, since my response has been to lock him out of the bedroom, beginning with the word “out.”

I’d like to hear from people with cats who think they’ve been teaching their pets verbal cues. And, as a postscript, I’ve been trying to play fetch with Taksi, and I’ve made minimal progress so far. But he loves to play, and favorite toys are balls of paper or tinfoil, cardboard roll inside toilet rolls, anything that will move if batted. And a few times, so far, he’s carried the ball back to me in his mouth, as a dog would.

Mr. Taksi’s Pomeranian Visitors

June 12, 2017

Tags: Mr. Taksi

Today, June 9, is Vickie Pajek’s birthday, and to celebrate, she is bringing her two dogs, Gismo, who is seven, and Coconut, who is nine, for a second visit with Mr. Taksi. Vickie arrived a week or so ago with toys for all, and they had a merry time of it, as some of the pictures that follow will illustrate. As for us, we laughed and laughed, and I was reminded once again of the power of pets to enrich our lives with laughter. So enjoy the photos and if they make you smile, please understand that Taksi offers me at least one amazing belly laugh a day, even though his behavior may begin by exasperating me with its insistence that I pay attention to him. He knows what he wants and is determined that I heed his needs. And dare I ask whether he wants to be visited? He doesn’t go off and hid; nor does he attack his guests. He’s curious, and perhaps even interested. We’ll see what a second visit brings. More to come.

Diagnosis Parkinson’s

June 10, 2017

Tags: Parkinson's

The ring finger of my right hand twitches uncontrollably when I hold my hand palm upwards. Not so the ring finger of my left hand. But sometimes they change places. I have no other twitches.

Still, there are other dimensions to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Instead of shaking, legs and arms may grow rigid, unable to move easily, if at all. That seems to be my case. And it’s been most apparent getting into and out of automobiles. At the worst, before I began the new medication, someone had to actually lift my legs out of the auto, and if the driver was in a hurry, he had to move my legs in the first place. Now, after almost two months on the Parkinson’s medication, and I’m still on a relatively low dose, I can move my legs myself.

Also there are other, more intimate changes, some having to do with matters of dressing. It’s easier now to get my socks on and my trousers as well as my underwear, and I don’t take so long, nor does the effort now bring me close to the point of tears. And I’m not as worried about falling in the stall shower as I have been. On the other hand, I continue to need naps and lots more sleep than ever before. And I still have nights when I can’t sleep at all, even if my naps were only 20-minute breathers.

So here’s what I have to do. I have to take three pills a day with meals, which means I have to return to the habit I broke several years ago. So breakfast is still the same solid meal of oatmeal and bran muffins and coffee and fruit, varied once a week or so by eggs or lox and bagels. And dinner is still meat or fish and two vegetables, with or without a salad. (Sometimes dinner is a huge salad and soup.) But lunch is the problem and so I’ve taken to yogurt and/or soup—just a bare minimum.

I’m still not able to walk more than a few blocks at a time, and I’ve not gone back to rehab yet. The longing for sleep is something that worries me. And of course the neurologist’s response is “do something,” “keep busy,” remarks that I might have made to a friend with a similar complaint. But I have plenty to do, meetings to attend and books to read. Often, I’d rather take a nap. In addition, I have friends who want to go to the movies with me. Why do I resist such entreaties? I still long for a swimming pool and have done nothing about that either. And yes, I will probably regret having written this out for others to see… it’s embarrassing, and I yawn again and again even as I go on typing….

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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