activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press

Florence in Words

Serendipity, Shock

July 7, 2014

Tags: writing

Me in 1950
In a messy closet, I was searching for my British travel materials, maps, guides to various sights in and out of London. I thought I had done a clean-up of such materials in 2009, when I went to London after a Women Writing Africa conference in Morocco. Perhaps I had, but why, then, did I now find —in the midst of maps of Britain and guides to monuments—two tiny notebooks, one 2 ½ x 5 ½ inches (green leather) marked “1949 Diary”; the other 2 ½ x 4 inches marked “1950.” The dates represent my last year at Hunter, and the eight months between leaving Hunter and entering Smith College. The entries cease on September 28, 1950. I am at Smith College.

When asked when I first began to keep a journal, I usually say that I began to type pages of journal after returning from Mississippi’s Freedom Summer at the end of August, 1964. Since that time, I have kept a journal, typed when I was at home and when traveling, written in notebooks. But until this moment, I thought that the only early journal I had kept depicted my first, unfortunate, and quickly aborted marriage. This is what I say about those pages in my memoir:

The diary pages, at some point torn out of their original binding, record the surface of my short life as a married woman from June 20 to September 2. I describe…in minute detail…even the hours we rose and retired…. But I never say a word about sex…. I was Samuel Pepys, though I didn’t know it. I write not a word about my feelings; not a syllable of an idea. Once I returned to Hunter in the fall of 1948, apparently I no longer kept a diary. (p. 137, A Life in Motion)

My mother often scorned my memory, saying I was the “elephant” in the family. But in this case, I’ve lost it. I don’t remember these two little newly-found diaries, and I had to have written in them every day. As I read them now, their contents could not have been made up. Discovering them today, 64 years after they were written, I have two reactions: first, I am disappointed to find so little about how I was feeling or what I was thinking; but then I am also amazed by the record of myriad activities, people visited, homework done, papers written, meetings, work, dates with the man who was to become my second husband in 1951 (and who was, like me still a college senior during that time and heading off to graduate school). The detail includes the names of plays seen, restaurants eaten in, and people visited, and illness noted, mostly unexplained, occasionally defined as “a cold.”

The journalsInside the journal

I’ll quote from several exceptional entries, these from 1950:

March 2, Thursday: Stayed in bed—reading more Huxley
March 3, Friday, Eve- “Saint Joan” w H. up in Bx. Actors Equity
So-so performance—I was horribly depressed--
March 4, Saturday. More depression—home all day & eve--blues
[days that follow have events listed, no mention of feelings]
March 9, Thursday. Home—in bed all day—feeling blue again. Herb
came at 4:30. Blowup with FRsr [my mother?] Dentist 7 p.m.

The dentist is there quite a lot. But there are no other mentions of moods of any sort. I remember that when I was “ill,” it was an aftermath of having stayed up two or three nights without sleep to write papers or study for exams, I then was “ill” for several days, staying in bed reading novels, usually Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh (always the British). Were the novels the cause of my depression? Or was it having to stay in bed to recover? Did it remind me of the childhood hospital days?

Have you had an experience like this one—finding your young self but unable to recognize her clearly. I long to visit that young person, at twenty. I long to know what was inside her head. And the journals, therefore, tease me. I will ponder them again.

Birthday Blog: Quite Late, Too

April 30, 2014

Tags: Don and Jorge, Helene, birthday

My dear website manager, Jeannette Petras, wondered that I had written nothing about or for my 85th birthday, since that marker was not likely to come around again. I was too depressed to write. Yes, it was the knee, or the meds I have been forced to take in order to deal with the knee—and it does no good to place the blame. But I did eventually write a small poem, and that’s the present I have for the small but exceedingly faithful readers I have to believe exist. And I do believe, for now and then one of you does write to me. And writing is the only defense I have against depression. I have never said that before, but I do believe it’s true. When I write, when I have written, when I am pleased with the result, I feel good.

So why don’t I write every day? Good question, for which I have no answer. I write often, more often than my blog would indicate. But what I write often is a “journal,” usually describing the day’s events, often reporting on the quality of the depression I am feeling, and in general too “boring” for a blog. At least that is my way of discriminating between the journal I write very often and the blog I write only now and then, and sometimes with large lapses between blogs.

I used to think of the blog as “public” and the journal as “private,” and perhaps there’s some truth in that, but if so, then this is an exception to the rule. And so I will tell you about the small but lovely celebration that occurred two days before the 17th of March, in a private room of a restaurant called The Leopard.

The arrangements were made by Don Thomas, Helene Goldfarb, and Jorge Cao. Invited were my daughter Alice, who traveled from Mississippi, and her daughter Dr. Florence, who works in New York; my stepson David, and my daughter-in-law AnnJ, who traveled from Washington, D.C., and their daughter Miriam, who works in New York; and my dear friend Alida Brill. So there were ten of us seated around a round table, the centerpiece of which was an arrangement of succulent plants I could take home and care for. The six-course lunch was elegant, varied, and memorable, and concluded with a purple and blue birthday carrot cake. The details were typical of the care with which especially dear Don and Jorge do things. And Helene, my oldest friend, was not about to heed my plea about no celebration. So this was a compromise, and a surprise in its own way. Yes, it was perfect in many ways, and I was pleased. And perhaps I was too quiet, still under the influence of the post-op meds and without much appetite. I filled up after the first two courses and decided I would take the rest home to eat the next day. I remember wishing I could be funny or witty, and worrying that I was too quiet. But others were lively and witty and at the end I blew out a single candle, thanking everyone and too choked up to speak.

I’ve said nothing of my feelings, but perhaps only a poem can do that. So here it is, the first poem I have allowed to enter the blog.

At 85

It’s the kind of number that doesn’t come up
readily. I mean in conversation, who would
say, I’m only 85 minutes late or early? Or who
would want 85 more of anything, even at a
shop that sells cookies or birthday candles?
But here I am, at 85, trying to face what facts I can
muster—a word that makes no sense but seems
appropriate today—when I must think about being

Perhaps an image would help me begin. Not the grey,
white-sky afternoon filling my window, clouded today—I’ve just
noticed—by plastic sheets, perhaps taped on by workmen
on scaffolds, searching for worn-out bricks they must mend.
I can’t see the workmen or the mended bricks
but perhaps they are both there,
like the left knee on which, after four months of those 85 years,
I can now stand and sit without pain.

Ode to Elizabeth Janeway

April 25, 2014

Tags: Elizabeth Janeway

Elizabeth Janeway
Dear Elizabeth, in whatever heaven you now dwell, forgive this forgetful woman, who still lives on a planet spinning its way to doom. Yes, I haven’t thought of you recently, though on my 85th birthday, I did think for a moment about the party for your 80th. But this week, a brief sentence in a relatively brief obituary for your son, Michael, roused me instantly. Even before your death in 2005, Michael had been for me your “good” son, since he made generous, annual contributions to The Feminist Press in your name. But on April 18, his obituary contained the following sentence, which I know he would not have approved. The offending sentence: “His mother, the former Elizabeth Ames Hall, was a novelist.”

Forgive us all, dear Elizabeth, forgive even the young writer of Michael’s obituary. You were never known by your maiden name. And in your day, you were a famous lady, even more famous than your famous husband, and perhaps both of you more famous than your sons.

Elizabeth Janeway was the author of six novels and five volumes of political feminist prose. In the last decades of the twentieth century, she was, along with Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Grace Paley, a leading feminist speaker and writer, appearing on thousands of platforms on campuses as well as before city audiences. Her New York Times obituary, published on January 19, 2005, describes her “as a best-selling novelist in the 1940’s and later [as one who] distinguished herself as a critic, a lecturer and an early advocate of the women’s movement.”

All of her novels, published between 1943 and 1959, were written during the period when she was rearing two sons, a full decade before the women’s movement began in the late 1960s. One of them, Daisy Kenyon (1945), became a film starring Joan Crawford. Apparently abandoning fiction, in 1971 Janeway published the first of five volumes of feminist nonfiction, Man’s World, Women’s Place: A Study in Social Mythology. All of her titles are telling: in 1973, Women: Their Changing Roles; in 1974, Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening; in 1980 Powers of the Weak; in 1982, Cross Sections: From a Decade of Change.

When we met in the late 1970s, I expressed interest in one of her fifties feminist fiction which was set in the thirties, because Feminist Press had a fiction series about the thirties in the U.S. But not until 1987 did I persuade Elizabeth to allow The Feminist Press, by then “at the City University of New York,” to republish her 1953 semi-autobiographical novel, Leaving Home, for which she wrote a preface and Rachel M. Brownstein, then a professor of English at Brooklyn College/CUNY, wrote an afterword. The New York Times book reviewer in 1953 had called it “A novel of new detachment and keen objectivity that is a delight to read and re-read, for its subtle, ironic implications.” Yes, this was the way—in the fifties—that one could pay homage to not-in-your-face feminist fiction.

And she, immensely modest, writes in her Preface: “Though it was written in the fifties, Leaving Home is indeed a novel about the thirties….The choice was a while in coming. I was still uncertain about the date of the novel even while I was thinking out its opening scenes. Perhaps I should say that I can never plan a work of fiction to its end. I have always started with a character or two caught in a fix of some kind. It may be large or small, but working to solve it sets the plot in motion and permits the people involved to flesh out into human beings whose actions and ambitions will direct the ‘story line.’”

Important to note, Elizabeth Janeway was also a member of the Board of Directors of The Feminist Press, and as such, part of my daily work life. Before she had agreed to come onto our Board, she had insisted that, as publisher, I had to agree to give at least token advances to authors of one hundred dollars, since she was also president of the Authors Guild. At the tenth anniversary of the Press, in 1980, she was the first to raise her glass of champagne to toast, “Here’s to the next ten years,” something I had not even begun to consider. Several years later, she opened her elegant eastside town house for a Feminist Press fundraiser at which Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen spoke and read to several hundred paying guests.

In 1993, at the home of psychologist Sue Zalk, the Vice President for Student Affairs of the Graduate Center/CUNY, and the Secretary to the Board of the Feminist Press, we gave a party to celebrate Elizabeth Janeway’s 80th birthday.

Dear Elizabeth, you were the life of that party, full of energy and joy. Today, I can comfort myself by remembering your life and your work, your certainty that The Feminist Press had a future and your willingness to be part of it. Thank you, Elizabeth, for filling our lives with good sense.

Mariam Chamberlain’s Death, One Year Later

April 5, 2014

Tags: Mariam Chamberlain

I dreaded the day, but April 2 passed, with two emails from Mary Rubin, and my two back to her, and one from Heidi Hartmann. It was a day like any other, since I think of Mariam often, many time in a single day, since there is much around me to remind me of her, and I have been confined mainly to my apartment for more than three months.

The painting called “Woman Reading,” which used to hang over Mariam’s bed, now hangs in a prominent position in my living room, near the Kaethe Kollwitz, which I’ve owned for almost 40 years, and the Picasso print which used to hang in Mariam’s dining room. And there are photos of Mariam in various places along my bookcases and on top of my desk in the study, where there is a photo-cluster of dead friends. That’s probably enough, but my friends, Don Thomas and Jorge Cao, persuaded me to replace my own walnut bookcases in the bedroom with four of Mariam’s bookcase units that used to stand in her living room.

So, yes, in every room, Mariam’s photos, furniture, and art work testify to her presence. And as if that were not enough, there are odd pieces of glass on a shelf in the kitchen, or on the dining room table.

Mariam was not a plant-person, though she enjoyed cut flowers and a blooming plant if she didn’t have to take care of it. And on the last day of cleaning out her apartment, I had to decide about a sad-looking plant with yellowing leaves that I could have tossed out. But I took it home, sprayed it, and it decided to live once I found the perfect spot for it. Today it has three blossoms and it is another reminder of Mariam.

Does all of this sadden me? Not in excess of the regret I have felt all year. Regret for her death, and a refusal to accept her age as comfort. Yes, I know: she could probably not have lived even for another year, given the aortal valve she needed, and of course I don’t need reminding that I would have been sad whenever her death occurred.

Perhaps death for those who lose a dear person is bound to be a long goodbye. Even when there seems to be closure—in the form of a burial, for example—there really is none. And I write today thinking of all those people around the world who, for two months, have not had the kind of word they can accept about the fate of their sons, daughters, mother, fathers, and other relatives who were on a huge plane flying from Malaysia to China. No comfort for them, I know, to say that, even when the person you care about has been placed in a casket and buried before your eyes, that act is also no comfort.

There is no comfort in death.

There is no relief.

There is no release.

There is memory and there is grief.

Ice-skating Number Two

February 25, 2014

Tags: Olympics

I’ve waited a bit to write about the final women’s ice-skating competition, to let it all sink in, perhaps. And I was rewarded by another glimpse of the Russian youngster, Adelina Sotnikova, who won gold, this time more relaxed, more beautiful to watch as she danced gracefully with a yellow banner. This performance seemed very different from the one scored for her winning gold. That night my impression was of her energy, her bursting into jumps endlessly, and though I was not counting, she did jump more than she needed to, as I learned from the newspaper accounts, which reported that she had deliberately—and with forethought—racked up more points than her competitor, the regal Uma Kim from South Korea, who had seemed unbeatable to me.

And so I have read carefully—and tried to ingest—the information about how such competitions are scored, and how a clever skater, energetic and without falling, can in a sense manipulate the scoring professionally, even honorably, by squeezing into her choreography several more than the required jumps, especially difficult jumps in a series. Perhaps it is better to have the details of scoring schemes rather than “impressions.” Still, it’s never going to be “clear,” is it?

Uma Kim, who is a mature woman, and a “lady,” said she was satisfied with second place, and that she would skate in competitions no more. Adelina, we may be sure, will be back next time, perhaps along with her compatriot, Yulia Lipnitskaya, whose performance was exquisite the first time I saw her, and similarly strong in the finals, except for her fall. She seemed artistically perfect, and her blurring spins unmatchable even by Adelina.

And the others. I thought Caroline Kostner from Italy, who took the bronze, skated beautifully to “Bolero.” Similarly, the two Americans, who wound up in 4th and 5th places, skated well, though they could not match the scores of those who had gone before them. Even Mao Asada from Japan could not beat the opening scores of the three winners.

Here’s a postscript that has nothing and everything to do with the Olympic ice-skating I have been enjoying. I went last night to the movies for the first time since the surgery in mid-November. I went with Louise Meriwether to see one of the Academic Award nominated films, “American Hustle.” I disliked it from its opening scenes and continued to regard in amazement its status as worthy of a nomination. I thought it lacked anything that one could point to as worthy of remembering. Actually, I had a feeling rare for me in any performance: I wanted to leave at once, and would have, were it not for Louise. And her story is emblematic of what I am trying to say. She had seen it, but didn’t remember it until the opening scene of a man pasting on his toupee, and then she gasped and said she had seen it. I would have left with her, but she insisted on staying so that I might see the film.

So we stayed and I continued to feel that I was watching some of the ugliest aspects of our American culture, and to no point: nothing but lying and cheating, even when intentions are allegedly to catch liars and cheaters. And all revealed as ugly, so ugly as to be hopeless for a viewer like me, who can only turn away and say, why, why, why must we make heroes out of villains? And I have not mentioned the twenty minutes of ads for newer films, all violent, if not brazenly murderous, seemingly even more unredeemable than “American Hustle.”

So I went home and turned on “The Red Shoes,” an old film that happened to be a Saturday night special choice of Turner’s Classic Movies, and it was redemptive, cleansing for me. To recognize meaning, to see beauty, to hear music, to marvel at dance: all immensely pleasurable, enduring in memory, never tiring to see again and again.

Moira Shearer’s dancing reminded me of the ice skating, and I went from there to watch Adelina and others skate with pleasure.

Olympics skating at Sochi 2014

February 20, 2014

Tags: Olympics

Gracie Gold
Yes, I have been watching the Olympics, and not only my favorite ice-skating stars. Some of the skiing has also caught my attention, the slopes terrifying, even from my couch. I continue to admire the resilience of skiers who are not put off even by a seemingly bone-breaking fall, and go on the slopes again. Other aspects of the games seem both frightening and still more impenetrable to me—variations playing on the edges of danger, and sometimes, as in the narrow speedway for one or two hurling bodies, the skill capable of winning gold seems totally impenetrable to the (ignorant) observer. From time to time, I watch and wonder especially when ice skating is not on.

Men’s skating proved the most shocking event, and not only because the Russian star, Evgeni Plushenko, who had led easily with at the beginning of the games, could not, in his second short program, move for the pain he felt. He left the ice, and then sent a formal notice of “retirement.” His first short program, in my view, was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen. It made the question—“Is figure skating an art or a sport?” irrelevant. Who could have known that, even then, his body was in pain. He seemed perfection. But what made the evening of his retirement still more shocking was that the three excellent skaters who followed him onto the ice, seemingly unnerved by the opening for gold of Plushenko’s departure, all fell—uncharacteristically—on their first jump. The first skater fell so hard that his body banged into a wall and lay inert for more than a few seconds. Then he rose, wobbled a bit, and finished his program—along with many other jumps—amazingly well. Well, I thought, his was a reaction to the Russian star. But the two who followed him—I wish I had notes before me—also fell on their first jumps, and then continued.

As I watched the ice-dancing, I thought about the skills of the Americans, and admired the Canadians and the others. It’s a far different skill or sport or art from the ice-skating single performances with their death-defying jumps that used to be simple axels and now require four twists or at least three in the air before coming down with elegance—and popping up again for at least one more jump, if not two. Ice-dancing requires two people to move in harmony not only clasped to each other, but, with far more difficulty, separately, “side-by-side.” I can’t help wondering how couples learn to do this beautifully. Do they count? Have they watched themselves filmed? How many hundreds of repetitions does it take to work out one minute of such complex movement? Viewed from my couch, the skaters seem relaxed, the movements easy. This evening, there were no falls, only perfection. And the two Americans, still in their teens, who have been dancing together since they were children, are they not perfection to watch?

I think back to the first night of ice-skating, when I watched the women’s short program and saw the American Gracie Gold for the first time in Sochi. Her performance was perfection. She is 19 and at her first Olympics. From where has she acquired not only the perfection of performance, but the poise, even seemingly comfortable poise? And then, the Russian fifteen-year old, Yulia Lipnitskaya, appeared for the first time, slight, short, hair tightly braided to her skull, a seemingly fragile figure. The jumps were birdlike, graceful, but what was unmatchable were her spins, so rapid and agile as to become a blur even on the screen. And one could only think: at fifteen? How could that be? (More to come.)

And for me, the question: why do I enjoy, even “love,” ice skating when I have never worn a pair of skates. Even when I roller-skated, I never “danced.” Is it like the ballet, like diving, sports or arts that demand grace of movement, even perfection, none of which I have ever had? Is it totally inexplicable? A pleasure not in my own body, no, not at all in my own body. But a pleasure in my being? What does that mean? What is being? Does it all go back to the idea of beauty, and the associated idea of pleasure in beauty?

I am thinking back to the first night of ice-skating I watched, the women’s short program, when the young American whose name is “Gold” skated for the first time with a perfection perhaps no one could have predicted, since it was never clear that she should be at the Olympics on the U.S. team to begin with. But that night in Sochi, she was perfection, and of course, forever that performance will be viewable whatever .

Alternative Careers—Then and Now

February 11, 2014

Tags: careers, Feminist Press, MLA

In January, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, several panels were organized to discuss the profession’s current quandary: that the production of graduate students does not match the availability of entry-level professional appointments. I compared my own path 60 years ago with that of new doctorates today. This is a version of that talk.
In 1951, I went to the University of Wisconsin/Madison on a teaching assistantship meant to last for five years and to include the writing of a dissertation. I left after three years because of a husband who was a failure at graduate school and who insisted that I leave as well. This, as I have told countless young graduate students, was a mistake I should not have made. Though I have had a rich teaching career, and though I was granted tenure at two academic institutions, and though I have published significantly, I missed several opportunities because of the missing doctorate.
In 1970, when The Feminist Press began, I was a tenured assistant professor at Goucher College, without a Ph.D. I had been there for eleven years when, in 1971, I was invited to move as a full professor with tenure to the College at Old Westbury. I was also invited to move the Feminist Press with me, since no one in Baltimore wanted to house it there, and since the young, new President at Old Westbury thought it would prove important. It’s a long story, and I tell much of it in my memoir, but for this essay what is important to note is that I never planned to have an alternative career. I loved teaching and had not yet found my niche in scholarship, though I had been the person to open Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts at the Berg, and might have had a career working on Woolf.
By 1985, when the Press moved into Manhattan, renamed The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, the work of managing it was so demanding that I had to give up teaching altogether, though I did not give up writing and work relevant to MLA members. In the 1990s I edited another version of No More Masks! the ground-breaking anthology of women poets first published in 1973 with one of my students, Ellen Bass, who has become a significant poet.
In the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, and even after retirement in 2000, I spent my literary energy and skills on two enormous projects: the rediscovery of Indian women writers in two volumes called Women Writing in India; and the rediscovery of African women writers in four volumes called Women Writing Africa. These volumes confirm and extend the original revelations with which the major work of The Feminist Press began: first, that women in the U.S. and the world over have been writers since the beginning of time, and second, that their work has been excluded not only from students’ curriculum, but from any acknowledgement of its existence, not only in the U.S. and the West, but everywhere in the world. I understand now that the work of The Feminist Press has been to reclaim that heritage and history. And clearly, this work has been and continues to be significant for the work of the Modern Language Association.
But unlike my first 50 years in the MLA, academe no longer can provide work for all of its doctorates in the modern languages. That’s the bad news, and none of us knows whether this is a permanent condition, or a temporary aberrant like those we endured during some periods in the last century. I am pleased to be able to describe one small remedy, the Public Fellows Program begun three years ago by the American Council of Learned Societies. This past year, twenty new doctorates in language and literature applied for two-year fellowships at a living wage to work for non-profit institutions in need of such specific skills as the ability to think and write clearly.
At The Feminist Press, we now have one of these fellows on a two-year appointment to us. Nino Testa is a graduate of Miami University who recently earned a doctorate in English at Tufts. His part-time work at Tufts’ Women’s Center was responsible, he has said, for allowing him to think outside of an academic teaching job. As a graduate student, though he enjoyed teaching and scholarship, he also enjoyed working with people and he found administrative work especially challenging. As I interviewed Nino for this paper, I found him clear-headed about the skills he has accumulated from his academic work, his scholarship and teaching, which make him suitable for a variety of other kinds of work. He cited his writing skills, and his ability to figure things out on his own—a result of his dissertation research—as well as his critical thinking.
At the Feminist Press, he is to focus on the work of development, which means fund-raising. He’s pleased because he has had no experience in this area and he knows that it is very important to non-profit organizations both large and small. He is very realistic about the future. He considers himself very fortunate to have been chosen for the two-year fellowship, enjoys being in the midst of a Graduate School environment, and working with a small but highly-committed staff of publishing professionals. Certainly, I would claim that Nino Testa represents, for MLA, one vision of the future.

Retirement, Part Two

February 10, 2014

Tags: retirement, Gloria Bonder

As part of the program of the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Language Association, I agreed to speak about retirement. And I did so by turning to a friend about whom I’ve written before. This is what I said publicly, but to the blog-readers I want also to note that the friend I am writing about is on her way from Argentina to visit me once again.
Gloria Bonder and I met in 1980 at the UN conference in Copenhagen. She was in her late thirties, and I was just past 50. Both of us were engaged in women’s studies in our own countries and also in the wider world of UN world policy. Our relationship has continued through the thirty-five years since then, as Gloria has become the inventor and director of a huge Latin American on-line graduate program in women’s studies, aimed at officials in business and government, both male and female. Two years ago, she came to visit me in New York with a new agenda: Approaching 70, how can she change her life, she asked? She is finding it more difficult to work her twelve to fifteen hours a day, often seven days a week. She feels tired. She would like to have a different life. What should she do?
What to tell her? For me, I told her, retirement has not been a solution. For some people like me, retirement may need a different approach. I learned this slowly, over the past fourteen years. In 2000, fourteen years ago, when I was 71, I decided it was time to retire. I had been with the Feminist Press for 30 years as its vision-maker and its administrator. The job had become too large for one person, I thought. Not only was I tired; I was also aware that the world of publishing was changing rapidly, and I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to move the Press into the digital world.
Instead, I proposed that I would retire to work full-time on the grant-funded Women Writing Africa, a multi-volume research and publishing project I had helped begin in the middle of the 1990s that was to produce four huge published volumes, none of which was yet ready. And so my proposal was accepted. By 2001, for example, I was traveling for the project to Senegal in January; Uganda and Morocco in April; and then to Bellagio, Italy, in September to meet with the West Africans, who had completed their volume’s collection phase and needed to work on translation, headnotes, and Introduction.
In addition, that year I seemed to have endless energy for travel. I spent three weeks in China beginning work on another book project. I also traveled for pleasure and also to see friends who were ill or failing, all the while editing the final texts for the Southern African volume. Today, I am amazed to note that that life of travel and editing continued for the next four years, and of course, as I think about it now, I was never really “retired.” I had simply arranged for myself another kind of work, very difficult work, but very rewarding. I must mention at least the chief ingredients of this work: collegial relationships, interesting texts, and a shared sense of making history with these volumes.
The work was interrupted just as we had begun on the Northern volume, when the Board of Feminist Press asked me to return as Interim Director, which I did for a year. Then, when I assumed I would “retire” again, the new director asked me to stay on as Publisher, since she knew that the Feminist Press needed two people at the helm. I stayed for two years, continuing my work on Women Writing Africa, perhaps somewhat more slowly than I would have liked. But yes, you see the point I am about to make: I was still not really “retired.”
In 2008, Gloria Jacobs, the Feminist Press’s director, gave a party for me in June, officially designated as my “retirement” party. I was then 79, three of the four African volumes had been published, and the fourth one was in press. So what was I to do next? I began working full time on the memoir that had simmered on a back burner for at least a dozen years and before then in my imagination’s back burner. As I try to reimagine those two years, what comes to mind are the several long weekends I worked with Janet Zandy, whose intelligent criticism sustained my need for a work-relationship. Writing is lonely work, I learned, especially when it is full-time.
What have I discovered? For people like me, retirement is a problem to be overcome, not a solution at all. I didn’t solve the problem creatively because I didn’t recognize its parameters or anticipate the symptoms it might rouse. I didn’t think about it —or even recognize it as a problem—until recently.
This is what I told my friend before she went home:
1. Do not leave your job; redefine it.
2. Cut your hours, cut your pay, but keep a significant portion of control over the workplace or your work in it.
3. Take a vacation, even a month-long one, and return refreshed.
Perhaps this advice will be useful only for people who have founded start-ups, new programs, or who are in charge of work important enough to allow them to follow my suggestions. Perhaps this advice will matter to people who have been, like me workaholics, people who, as Marilyn French used to say, “never learned to play.” For her, she said, work meant you were alive.
I used to tell my students—who for more than a decade were women and who, in the sixties, didn’t think much about work—that they needed both love and work. Growing older does not reduce or eliminate those needs. They are simply more difficult to fulfill.
Even as I prepare this for my blog, I am awaiting the arrival of Gloria Bonder. More when I’ve talked with her about her future retirement plans.

An Out-of-Body Experience after Surgery

February 3, 2014

Tags: surgery

My knee-replacement surgery was scheduled at the Hospital for Special Surgery for Wednesday afternoon, November 13, 2013. Two weeks earlier, I had spent a long day in the building for a series of tests and preparatory seminars, and I could see that the hospital was located right on the eastern edge of Manhattan, facing the East River. Only for one moment did I wonder whether I would awaken in a room with a view of that river, for I feared the surgery so much that I hardly expected to wake up at all.

The first few days were and are still so confused in my mind that I cannot write a coherent sentence about them. A sharp memory begins one night—perhaps the second, perhaps the third night after surgery—when I remember being handed a small paper cup containing five differently colored pills. I remember swallowing all five of them at once, with one swig of water, without asking not only what they were, but why I had to swallow them. Instead I lay down and seemingly went to sleep. There was no light in the room.

Then, suddenly, I was awake and knew only a feeling of terror. I began to tear at the brace strapped to my (surgical) leg. I tore off a piece and threw it on the floor, and then tore off another piece. I was conscious of deciding that I would not be confrontational. But I wanted to free my leg so that I could run out of the room. I needed to escape. For I moment I thought I was a small child.

But then I was older, alone, on an urban corner brightly lit by neon signs and with people rushing by, no one noticing me. What was I to do? Where was I to go?

My roommate heard something she called “moaning,” and so she called the nurse, who came in and asked if I had been dreaming. I said the brace on my leg was hurting me and I remembered the pieces I had torn off. The nurse readjusted the brace and I went back to sleep.

In the morning, I remembered the episode but told no one. I wrote what I could remember in the small notebook I had taken with me. Writing, I remembered the hospital I had spent nine months in when I was nine years old. There I was alone in a huge room holding eight beds, all but mine empty. Large glass windows filled two sides of the room; on the third side a glass wall allowed visitors to wave their silent greetings twice a week. Was I reliving that experience, trying to escape from it? [See my memoir for an account of the childhood experience.]

Or was I simply traumatized by the surgery and the drugs I had been given? I wrote this the next morning:
The fires were burning
Though there were no fires
The river was running
Though there was no river
On a neon-lit street
Dark bodies rushed past me
Whom should I tell?
Who would help me?
How to stop the bodies running past me?

Apology for Two Silent Months Following Surgery on November 13

January 19, 2014

Tags: surgery

Inside the hospital
It never occurred to me, since I had never experienced major surgery, that I would not be able to go home relatively soon after surgery, sit at my computer, and write in my usual way. I did not make plans to take my laptop to the hospital. But whatever I was thinking, nothing worked as I had expected.

In the first place, I stayed at the Hospital for Special Surgery (a beautiful facility on the East River) for five days instead of the two or three, mainly, I think now, because I was afraid to take the pain-killers offered after this type of surgery. I tried to survive only on Tylenol, which didn’t work. By that, I mean that the Tylenol wasn’t strong enough to allow me even to move the surgical leg off the bed or onto the bed. Post-surgery, I had no control over the leg. The leg seemed comatose. It followed no commands from my brain. And if someone tried to help me move it off the bed so that I might stand on it and make my way to the toilet, the pain was so intense that I felt nauseated as though I was about to faint.

After three days of no progress, and an out-of-body horrible experience overnight, a friendly nurse, who took the time to sit and talk with me, suggested that I try a small dose of delaudid, a drug that no one else had suggested. But something about the manner of this nurse, and perhaps the fact that I had had that dreadful experience the night before, allowed me say yes, I would try it. And yes, it worked.

(If you are wondering about the “experience,” I feel reluctant to write about it, though I have an account of sorts in the small journal I kept while in both hospitals. And perhaps it merits a blog of its own.)

Flowers in the hospital
Once I could stand and even take a step or two, I was transferred by ambulance to Roosevelt-St. Luke’s hospital, so that I could participate in its well-respected re-hab program. There I continued on the delaudid, and the medical team in charge seemed to know about its qualities and respect it as a useful drug. Compared to the Hospital for Special Surgery, Roosevelt could not have been more different. It was located on the third floor of the hospital, and perhaps some of the rooms were spacious, light, and cheerful. But mine was small and dreary and probably good for me, since I knew I could not survive in it for long. I had to get out of there and back to the light of my apartment.

So I set a goal of a week. I would stay only one week. And the first thing I did was to abandon the wheelchair. Take it away, I said. I would use only the walker, and my goal was to get onto the cane before the week was up. The trainers assigned to me were excellent, as were most of the nurses and aides. And I made some progress, though it was difficult, painful, and sometimes also exasperating. I was treated by some of the staff as though I was 60, the age of many of the patients. No one was as old as I, and young people, I’ve come to believe, cannot see any difference between a sixty-year-old and someone close to eighty-five.

But I did leave, as I said, the day before Thanksgiving, and with a lot of help, I was able to spend Thanksgiving with close friends.

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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