December 19, 2016
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
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.
December 12, 2016
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.
November 29, 2016
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!
November 22, 2016
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.
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.
October 4, 2016
Two weeks to go to Mallorca, and I’ve begun a new course of Rehab, this one designed to improve my leg, back, and stomach muscles so that I can walk normally again. All I can do is begin the process, and thus prepare myself for a long journey and for the swimming I hope to do each day which will keep me mobile. And when I return I will continue with the rehab.
I used to joke about the rehab I endured three years ago, after the knee replacement surgery: I was practicing to walk sideways and backwards. Never to walk forward, that was my joke. But why? Certainly, the new therapist to whom I’ve been assigned has given me new courage and hope. The first thing she had me do was walk forward across a room, sit down, stand, and walk back again. Yes, I was slow and awkward, but I managed it. And the session with her made me feel hopeful as I haven’t felt in years. Perhaps, with her help, I will be able to walk again.
More about her when I get to know her better, but I will say that she is tiny, elegantly tiny. She also describes herself as a Tibetan from India, and she was very coherent about the muscles that need to fire if I’m to walk. Some of these muscles are still functional; some seem out of it. But she warned me not to give up, that they all show some elasticity and energy, even those seemingly most tired or plain worn out.
My job for the next two weeks, apart from rehab and some exercises in between is to decide what I am going to be working on at the workshop: prose or poems? Old ones that need revising? New ones that simply might arise from returning to a place I enjoy?
And perhaps I will be able to write a blog from Mallorca, where the weather is ideal, clear, in the low eighties and sunny during the day, cooler at night, with no rain in sight, at least for my two weeks. If I sound unusually excited it’s that I’ve not been out of the country in two years, and not in Mallorca in three years. This may be my last time, and yes, I’m grateful for every day I get.
September 26, 2016
Ellen Bass hosts a workshop and retreat at one of the most beautiful places I have been lucky enough to visit, Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain. For a week a dozen writers will come together with Ellen to write and read aloud what they’ve written, in a workshop held at a lovely house appropriately called La Serrania, for serene it is. It sits like a small sturdy jewel in a rural area, surrounded on all sides by green hills. When I was there last, three years ago, I spent a whole day trying to write a poem about the various greens of the surrounding countryside and hills.
If you’ve been reading my blog even occasionally, you might know that I’ve not been well enough even to travel locally. But I have also been improving, and I am determined to go, not because of my writing, but rather because of my psyche. I want to breathe in the health that Serrania emanates, in part because of the beauty of its simple but powerful structure, in part because of its location, a green gem in the ocean. Three years ago, on the final day of my week, I wrote,
Why do I need to catch this scene?
Why is it essential to my life today?
Why could I not see it yesterday in the brilliant sun?
When I tried to name the greens and found I had too few words?
Is it the souvenir I want to carry back into my urban life?
Does it signify the peace I feel at Serrania
Despite the turmoil I unroll on the screen each day,
Torments twisting out of shape all that was once beautiful?
The last three years have not been healthy years for me. I want to turn that ever-beckoning corner and find I can walk freely again. Perhaps two weeks on the sun-drenched, gemlike green island will help me. More to come.
September 11, 2016
Like most New Yorkers, the brilliance of that day, fifteen years ago, and the deaths it charted remain fresh and clear in all my mind. Many disasters can be set beside it, including the long siege of war in Syria, for example. Still, it is important that each of us remember what we can of the terrible and terrifying history of our time. What I remember vividly begins with voting that day in a primary at a school near where I used to live on the East Side of Manhattan, and then taking a taxi to a doctor’s office, where there was pure chaos, lots of shouting to get out of there. It was 9:30 in the morning, and I knew nothing about what had happened, and assumed I could get another taxi to take me home, since I was carrying a thousand page manuscript, part of Women Writing Africa.
I walked out on Amsterdam Avenue, where, strangely, there were no taxis or buses, only people walking. And so I walked north, hoping I’d spot a cab on the way, and I did at 86th Street, where, despite the weight of the manuscript, I sprinted towards it, opened a back door, and slid in. The cabbie was crying, huge sobs rang from his body, and when I asked what was wrong, he said, “My sister, my sister, she’s in that building.” And that was all I could get out of him. Finally, he heard me when I said I would give him all the cash in my wallet if he took me home. He was headed, he said, to Queens, where he lived, and my apartment was on the east side of Manhattan, just ten minutes away. And he agreed.
But the first problem was that all the crossings of Central Park had been closed, and so we drove north to 110th Street, and east to Lexington Avenue and then south to 87th and Third Avenue, where I lived. I emptied my wallet, wished him well, and went up to my apartment, still carrying the huge manuscript. The journey had taken more than an hour because of the volume of traffic.
And only then—at perhaps one p.m., when I turned on the television—did I see what had happened early in the morning when I and countless New Yorkers were voting or arriving at work. The television played the clips of each plane hitting each of the Towers, and then the clips of each of the Towers falling down. And I am not sure whether that early day we also had sight of the people who chose to jump from the building before it began to collapse.
I sat for three or four hours, trying to locate all the friends I knew who worked in lower Manhattan, and for all of that time I could not find Mariam Chamberlain, who had voted and arrived at her office at least half an hour before any of this began. She was not in the Twin Towers, but in a building a few blocks away. And while she could see the horrors, she could not leave until late afternoon, and there were no phone lines she could have used to tell friends she was all right. She luckily found a bus nearby that was going from lower Manhattan up the east side as far as 34th Street, where she emerged to walk the twenty blocks to where she lived, and I reached her then, at almost evening.
It’s clear to me that I need to hear the names of the dead read out for the world to hear and I will also see the dreadful clips of the planes—only now we will also have to remember the two other planes as well as the views of those jumping and of the buildings collapsing as though they were made of dust, not steel.
August 16, 2016
Yes, I was tired as I kept my acupuncture appointment, and I knew I was going to lunch afterward instead of going home and resting. Linda picked me up in a taxi and then told me we were going to Atlantic Grill on Third Avenue. The name meant nothing to me but as soon as we were inside, I knew where I was, but not Atlantic Grill. Up front, I remembered Mariam Chamberlain’s enjoying the young people at the bar, beginning conversations with them, as we stood for a half hour sipping chardonnay and waiting for a table. And I always admired the L-shaped restaurant itself, its distinctive and beautiful brick wall that ended in a glass wall open on a beautiful garden. The restaurant was one of my favorite places, and I spent much of the lunch trying to remember its name.
I was also thinking about an important lunch there with a female member of the City University of New York’s Executive Board whose job it would be to recommend that The Feminist Press become resident at the Graduate Center and I become a full professor. And I could not remember her name, though I could see her face and even the toque-like hat she wore. I remember her first name now—Blanche.
Yes, I was extraordinarily quiet through lunch, did not talk about what I was trying to remember. On the way out, I asked several waiters, including the man seemingly in charge, if he remembered what this restaurant was called before it was bought by Atlantic Grill. No one responded.
At the front desk of my building, I was handed a huge bag of manuscripts I had agreed to review, and as I headed to pick up mail, the postman handed me a few letters, and I walked to the elevator, rooting around in my capacious handbag for my house keys in their usual spot.
By the time I reached my door, I had found no keys. No keys? No keys! No keys? How could that be? I am disciplined about where the keys rest when they are at home, on the end of a small bookcase near the door, from where they go into my handbag. And of course I use them to lock the door behind me.
I rang my neighbor’s bell, and to my relief Renee was at home and she invited me to come in and go through my bag systematically, saying that this happens to her once or twice a year at least. I felt frantic, breathless, anxious. I could not calm down, but I did say that it had never happened to me. As my heart continued to pound, I emptied my handbag onto Renee’s beautiful embroidered tablecloth, dropping cookie crumbs, but finding no keys. Renee urged me to call security, which I did.
Even then, I had no memory of leaving my apartment while my housekeeper was still in the apartment. And so I had left without picking up my keys, since Lucy was there. It’s days later and I still can’t understand not only how I could have left the keys, but as frightening, how could I have not remembered Lucy’s presence?
August 1, 2016
Midsummer has come around quickly, and I’m still optimistic, though I have not had another diagnosis beyond A-Fib, and though I now own two “walkers”—machines on which I can lean as I walk. One of them, a three-wheeler with a bag for some carrying, Elyse Hilton found on Amazon, and set up for me when it arrived. The other was a surprise from my darling and intrepid daughter-in-law, AnnJ, who found a small, two-wheel walker that folds into a small unit that could fit beneath a theater seat. I was set to surprise her with the three-wheeler, but she really knocked me over with the one she had shipped to cousin Lori here in New York to present to me.
My friends know that I’ve been staunchly opposed to moving beyond the cane, seeing walkers as a negative signal one step from a wheelchair. But I was wrong, and now I know it. It was all probably vanity. I want my health (and even my youth)—who doesn’t? And I must learn to deal with reality. Aging is tough, on bodies and minds. It’s not for the faint of heart; it’s not for those who prefer living in delusions.
So, yes, I am grateful for work that interests me: for the volume to be called What I Left Out, I’m making progress on the difficult essay about my brother who committed suicide in 1985, and about whom I had little to say in my memoir. It’s always been difficult even to talk about him, and it’s one of the areas of my life I can honesty claim not to “know” or “understand.” I say that also about a number of things in my life. But of all of them, this is an old and life-long puzzle—and perhaps you have one in your life: How could two children, brother and sister, three years apart, be so different, never become friends, never share any of life’s views or values? I’ve assumed for years—yes, I’ve been trying to write about this for years—that I was probably guilty for not doing something to change the way we grew up and became adults. Hubris? Probably. Not for the first time in my writing life, I am discovering that writing helps to unlock mysteries in one’s own life. I’m discovering once more that writing stirs my memory. August 1 was my brother’s birthday. He would have been 85. He killed himself in 1985, when he was 53.
"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
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