Florence in Words
December 9, 2014
I’ve just finished watching Gravity, and I can understand why, a year ago, it was a possible contender for the Academy Award. It’s an unusual film, an exiting film, and a complex one scientifically. Probably it was more terrifying to see on a big screen than it was here on my little television set. I can understand the disappointment of the director/producer and the female star when 12 Years a Slave won. Clearly, the subject—the terrors of racism, albeit historically presented—won, and not the terrors of forward-looking science and technology.
Ironically, of course, this year, as possible Academy Award films begin to challenge each other, there is nothing among them to capture the vision we have on small screens of white policemen killing black males, one even as young as twelve, and one old enough to have a couple of children. No film we are being offered comes close to the stories we hear about on television and in political speeches and read about in newspaper and magazine print.
People like me went to Mississippi in the mid-sixties, where we witnessed white police savagely attacking black youngsters “to teach them a lesson,” as I heard one officer say. And at least once in my months in Jackson, in 1964 and 1965 I saw members of the F.B.I. stand by while police banged kids in the head and kicked them as they lay on the ground. No one ever touched me, though I was told countless times to “go back where you came from.”
I did not understand how traumatic this experience had been until, back in Baltimore, the car I was driving was hit from behind by a truck that didn’t stop in time. As a white policeman approached my car, I screamed, “Don’t touch me. Get away from me.” He tried to tell me I was bleeding, but I kept on screaming until a friend came by and explained that I needed medical attention and the policeman was trying to be helpful.
Today, at lunch with my bi-racial grand-daughter, I heard her describe how her white father and black mother—both lawyers—had prepped her and her older brother about what to do if stopped by police, wherever they might be. “Don’t fight it. Don’t get angry. Do what you are told. Be passive. Say you want to call your father.”
I can’t explain rationally why all this came out after “Gravity,” unless it’s the word itself. Yes, it means the force that keeps us anchored to the earth, but it also means something of extreme significance. And that’s also where we are as a nation: somewhere in outer space, unwilling or unable to come to terms with our racist past, unable to break out of the racism that still controls many of us both consciously and unconsciously. I want to say, “How long? How many years longer before we are not burying black men killed by white men unable to control their fear."
November 20, 2014
A strange title for me, and a strange feeling. I’ve been aware for more than a week that the depression that usually lives with me, if not in me, has gone away. Perhaps it’s only temporary, but it is gone, though I don’t think I can explain how I know. Seems mysterious. Probably is.
I am sleeping a bit less than I do when I’m depressed. And I’m dreaming a lot, sometimes very strange dreams, which I do also when I’m depressed. So that’s not it. First clue: I’m eating more than usual, and nibbling as well, on nuts, fruit, even bits of chocolate or cookies. When I’m depressed, I eat very small meals, I’m usually not interested in food, and don’t nibble at all. Just this week, the scale showed a quick gain of some five pounds, so perhaps that’s a palpable clue: do I want to be fat or depressed?
Another clue: Last week I wrote poems each morning, just like that. And I didn’t write journals every day, wrote every third or fourth day. And I wrote nothing in the journals about depression. And now here I am trying to write a blog. But of course I have written blogs while depressed—and several of them about being in that state.
Final clue: Response to visitors. When I’m depressed, I usually prefer being alone and when I can, I put off appointments, visitors, certainly people I don’t know at all. And this week I had several visitors and felt welcoming and felt glad I had agreed months ago to host two women from San Francisco I had met in Mallorca in 2011—the first time I went to Ellen Bass’s workshop. Connie, Julie, and I had talked a bit there, as we ate meals together, and also took several walks down a rocky road, but I had no expectations of seeing them again. Well, they asked if they could stay in my apartment for a long weekend in New York as part of their longer honeymoon to be spent in Paris. They had a busy schedule, mainly seeing other people, but we had mornings--and several late evenings--for conversation over breakfast or tea. When we talked about childhoods, I mentioned that, if asked, I would never have said I had experienced depression early in my life, and I told them about the little notebooks written during my mid-teens at college, which mentioned depression. I told them that my long-time depression, which had returned after I had returned from Europe, was now gone, though I didn’t know why, or even when, much less where it had gone.
So how does it feel to be without depression? How does one describe “absence”? Does it feel “normal”? I need to work at this, for I can’t describe the feeling except as absence. It’s not there—or here. I don’t “have” it. When I “had” it, I sometimes used the metaphor of a quilt. Once, I said it was like a shot to my body.
This is the second day I’ve tried to write and rewrite this blog. Yesterday, I wandered into the area of religion, but I’ve cut that out and left it for another day. I’m going to try to look at the day: it’s a blue-sky day out my window, royal blue. And from here I can’t see signs of a stiff wind and I’m too high to see the people on the streets below bundled in layers, hats, and scarves. I’m going out in a few minutes to get a flu shot, take a short walk, test the day.
Will send the blog into the world. Perhaps that’s the key: It’s not finished, but I’m sending it. Makes no sense, I know. But perhaps I’m too eager to make sense.
October 15, 2014
Mariam Chamberlain was my dear friend, mentor, grant-giver, and colleague for forty years. We first met in April 1971, when she called a meeting mainly of academic scholar-feminists in order to map a program of giving by the Ford Foundation. She was interested in me because I mentioned that I had a list of new college courses on women that faculty had begun to teach. Faculty called them female studies or women’s studies or feminist studies. Clearly, this was the way that social or political movements begin--without organization or leadership, and with only individual, isolated outposts, which, because of an intrepid undergraduate at Goucher College named Carol Ahlum, I had on a list. Faculty had written to me because a journal called College English had published my course syllabus and my essay about the composition course focused on women writers I had been teaching since the mid-sixties. I didn’t think about women’s studies. I was trying to improve my students’ writing. At the time of Mariam’s meeting at Ford, in 1971, I had information about two women’s studies programs and 610 courses at 210 institutions.
When we met a few weeks later, Mariam said she wanted more information, and she proposed that I survey all the colleges in the country and that the Feminist Press publish the results. She offered the Feminist Press its first Ford grant, about $10,000, and in this way Mariam began to support women’s studies. In 1974, the Feminist Press published a 300-page volume called Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies, listing 2,984 faculty, teaching 4,658 different courses at 885 different institutions. I should mention that this study was done through the U.S. Postal Service, and, in my office, the editors, who were Old Westbury students, used note cards to assemble the information. (There were no computers at the Feminist Press until 1987.) This volume also listed 112 Women’s Studies Programs, some of them offering majors or minors. The spurt in growth between 1971 and 1974 can only be described as phenomenal. Mariam used that information as a guide for her funding program that ranged through the 1970s until 1982, when she left the Ford Foundation. By then, she had funded more than 30 Centers for Research on Women, most of which had begun as a Women’s Studies Program and continued a teaching component.
Why did this matter? Why does it still matter today? In the 1960s, I had begun to teach a writing course at a women’s college focused on women because of a mind-bending experience in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I was not a feminist. I was interested in solving a puzzle. Why was it that poorly-educated young Black high school girls could write amazing poetry, while Goucher students could write only perfectly correct and absolutely boring essays. For a couple of years I searched for the subject that might excite these privileged white students, and when I hit on it, it seemed obvious. I asked them to talk and then write about how they and their brothers were treated in their families. And I assigned books by women to stir their imaginations further.
But clearly, that was not enough, since I was also teaching literature courses with nary a woman writer in them. By 1969, students who had been in my writing class could not understand why my 18th century syllabus contained the name of not one woman writer, and they asked me whether someone had typed this for me and had made an error. No, I responded, I typed my own syllabus. I have to admit, I continued, I don’t know any 18th century women writers. They were as shocked as I was embarrassed.
At about the same time, I was also conducting a huge study of 5,000 English and foreign language departments for the Modern Language Association, where I chaired a Commission on the Status of Women. The results were not what I had expected, and I had to interpret them. Fields and men were 20 percent. As doctoral graduate students, the figures were neatly reversed: men were 80 percent and women 20 percent. How could that be? We also knew that women’s grades were far higher than men’s. And we could not blame the disparity on discrimination, since women did not even apply for places in doctoral programs.
I’m sure you can imagine the effect of at least a hundred years of such practice. All or more than ninety percent of the faculty in the most prestigious colleges and universities were male. And even on elite women’s college campuses, most faculty were male. What was the problem? How could I analyze these results?
At first I was simply shocked, and then, when I put this information together with my own experience, two facts stood out: First, I had read no women writers, and if not for the president of my college, who had singled me out and helped me directly to enter graduate school, I would have become a high school English teacher. I had no other ambition and no reason to have another ambition. Second the curriculum in literature studies was certainly ninety percent male. How could female college students grasp the idea that they might become professors of literature, much less writers of literature? Clearly, they had no models at universities, nor in the literature they were reading. How could they imagine themselves as writers? Or professors?
The Feminist Press was founded in 1970, almost a year before that meeting at the Ford Foundation, and for the purpose of correcting ignorance about women not only as writers but as important to historical memory. We had begun with the idea of publishing brief biographies of women and children’s books. But only a few months later, after a world-famous writer, Tillie Olsen, sent me a brilliant, “lost” novella written by a woman, the emphasis of our work shifted markedly. I remember saying out loud, if Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis had been lost for 110 years, there must be other works lost as well. And of course I was correct, as the 44-year history of the Feminist Press makes clear. I am convinced, further, that there is much still to be found of the voices of women not only in the U.S. but around the world.
Mariam knew this story and we had for most of the 1970s worked together on issues of importance to women’s studies in the U.S. But unlike many of us, Mariam’s vision, in part shaped by management studies, which, as an economist, she had worked on through the 1960s, had also been honed to think internationally. In early 1980, about a decade after we had met, Mariam called one day to say she wanted me to go with her to look at women’s studies in three European countries, England, France, and Italy. She had made several small women’s studies grants to institutions in each country, and she wanted to see what had happened and what else might be done. She also knew that there was to be a UNESCO meeting on Women’s Studies in April of that year, and though I didn’t know it then, she planned to name me as the U.S. representative. Finally, she also had plans for the United Nations meeting in the summer of that year. As part of her funding program for women’s studies, she would give the Feminist Press $5,000 to organize a presence at that Copenhagen conference, and she would also use her influence so that the UN itself would give the Feminist Press another $5,000 for the same purpose.
Mariam was an unusual program officer, in that, at least with this project, she was ready to enjoy being in part also a participant, seeing the project close up. We were certainly partners as we traveled to Oxford, then London, Paris, and Rome, to interview those who had Ford grants and others who would like to have them. Mariam was not shy about stating her interests. She knew how to move movements forward—conferences were an important instrument, as were “centers” for networking and information-gathering. And while she was somewhat disappointed that those in Britain and Paris were indifferent to her stated interests, she saw the Italians as moving intrepidly on their own to construct networks and conferences, and rewarded them accordingly. Within a year the Feminist Press had published a book about the kinds of women’s studies the Italians were creating in combination with trade unions to enhance work and study opportunities for women.
Perhaps most interesting was that at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Mariam felt free enough to behave sometimes as a staff member might, taking her turn at the coffee machine in the meeting rooms we occupied for the two weeks of the conference, and then, switching gears to pick up the dinner bill at planning meetings, and finally, to host an end-of-conference party for the several hundred participants who had been speakers or audience at our thirty-five sessions.
One of Mariam’s last grants to the Feminist Press came out of these UN conferences. For the first five years following the meeting in Copenhagen, we were to be the partner-organizer with the Center for Policy Studies in New Delhi, India, of a Women’s Studies International Network. We were to use the several hundred thousand dollars to visit and offer collegial services to various kinds of women’s studies programs around the world. And we were to hold focused international conferences in the U.S. Mariam’s dream was big-time and never to be realized, since she was cut off when her job disappeared, but she had talked about it with me often. Though she was not a reader of fiction, which was, ultimately, my interest, and the strength of the Feminist Press publishing program under me, she grasped the power of publishing as an arm of the knowledge-gathering purpose of the women’s research centers she had been publishing for a decade. She was certainly visionary in many respects, but few people know how far her vision extended, and that she certainly understood the power of publishing for women. Had she continued at Ford, I have no doubt that she would have begun to fund publishing especially focused on women’s economic equality.
Mariam died a year and a half ago. She left $100,000 to the Feminist Press, which we have turned into the Chamberlain Revolving Capital Campaign, aiming to add $200,000 so as to provide the director of the Press with a mechanism for managing a business that has never had its own capital. As an economist, Mariam was especially keen, all through the years she served on our Board of Directors, that we begin a capital campaign. She knew that we needed to control debt by having some capital. And of course, once again she has helped us. If you are interested in contributing, please write to me.
September 26, 2014
In Strasbourg, Christiane’s parents wanted to see us at once, and we agreed to have a traditional mid-day dinner with them at a restaurant I remembered from a previous visit. Elegant and beautifully set in gardens, the restaurant served its traditional plate of ham, stuffed cabbage, potato, and sauerkraut. These items really do all go together, and I expect I delighted these warm and kind people by leaving only a clean plate. Later, in the apartment of Christiane’s parents, she and I played Rummikub with Irene, Christiane’s mother, while her father, Edmond, took a nap. That was a quiet, restful day, and I should have had several of these in a row. (Yes, Irene is the champ of Rummikub.)
But on the following day, Christiane and I set out to do half a dozen errands and a bit of shopping, and of course it proved far too much for me, though we were back in the apartment long before dinner time. Yes, I was frustrated. There were many places in Strasbourg I had never been to, the weather was perfect, sunny and comfortable, and I seemed grounded. So I insisted on going out again, and this proved my downfall. Christine arranged for me to have special help as we traveled by train to Switzerland to see some of Christiane’s old friends and to enjoy views of Lake Luzerne.
Like the trains in England, these were very comfortable, the first from Strasbourg to Basel, was French; the second from Basel to Luzerne, was Swiss. In both places, we were helped with the luggage and I was in a wheelchair.
In Luzerne, we enjoyed more fine weather, a few memorable thunder-and-lightening storms, and great sunsets. We enjoyed being on the lake in a boat, and driving around the lake, as well as up a small mountain so that we could see Luzerne—the town and the lake—spread out below. And I rested enough so that, on our final day, I could visit Luzerne’s museum, which tested the limits of my ability to photograph using the I-Phone. I failed. We did see an exhibit of one of Switzerland’s most beloved painter-heroes, Hans Emmenegger (1866-1940), whose art I had never seen before. The exhibit included samples of his various subjects. I was most taken with his early paintings of tree trunks in sunlight, and almost as obsessive, his interest in trying to paint the movement of water in various forms.
Back in Strasbourg for the last remaining days, Christiane and I had lunch at the Art Café of the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Much of the museum was taken up by Daniel Buren’s work, an artist whose exhibit called “Like Child’s Play, Work in Situ” consisted of 104 giant wooden pieces in the form of children’s geometric, traditional building blocks, half of them painted white and half in bright colors. Clearly families with small children were having a good time walking through the exhibit. The same artist’s idea of “in situ” had also transformed the museum itself. And here I was more successful with my I-Phone. The museum’s glass-paneled walls had been covered with “tinted film affixed directly to the glass canopy.” As the museum’s pamphlet continues, “Thus, added to the 25 meter high “nave,” these “stained glass windows create a striking effect, radically altering our external vision of the museum’s iconic façade, as well as our perception of its interior space.”
Finally, I will conclude with another tribute to Christiane for making my holiday possible, both in London and on the Continent. While I wrote, she worked on her translations, and we could talk together of books we had and hadn’t both read. And despite our cultural differences, we shared mutual interests in film and theatre. We also liked playing games, and especially Rummy-kub, which I hadn’t played in decades, and in which, dear reader, she beat me almost every time.
August 27, 2014
It is hard to explain why London is so fraught for me with emotional longings, for home, for missed opportunities, regrets, losses, and, at the same time, filled with anticipations of joy and even magic. I like the look of it—yes, that’s one simple pleasure. I connect it with memories of youthful adventure, including the month I spent at the British Museum copying out the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway, each morning greeted warmly by the guards, to whom I had made presents of political buttons calling for an end to the Vietnam War. I remember the visits to the National Gallery, the old Tate and then the new Tate Modern. I remember the little hotel on a street one block long, just off Piccadilly, where I stayed with daughter Alice one year, with friend Helene another, and once with Mariam Chamberlain as well. Five years ago, I shared an apartment in the suburbs with Susie Tharu and her husband, and I remember a very hot day, when we walked across the pedestrian bridge to see a play at the National Theatre. And the early days of the National itself, gleaming white in the sunlight, pristine still. I’d visit on the very first day to buy tickets to whatever was on in its three theatres. And in those days, there would be live music an hour before curtain time in the extensive lounges on the ground floor.
But this visit bound to be different not only because of my walking problems—we took many taxis--but also because I was going to share the time with Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, the French translator of the Women Writing Africa volumes, two of whose children lived in London. Didier, Christiane’s son, and his fiancée, Clare Podbury, had just bought the apartment in Canary Wharf they had been living in for a decade. The area, on the river, and within a short bus ride or a long walk to the underground and ferry wharf, is the new financial center of London (see skyscraper photos). They invited us to stay with them for a week. The apartment is spacious, beautiful, decorated in what Clare calls “greige,” and ornamented as well by the river and by exquisite sunsets off a deck outside the living room’s glass wall. One day Christiane and I walked along the river from the apartment to take the Thames ferry to the Tate Modern.
In all, we saw three plays, viewed four art exhibits, and ate two lunches at the Tate Modern, one at the Globe, another at the National Gallery, and took Clare and Didier out to two dinners in upscale restaurants. The plays: Julius Caesar at the Globe, a special experience because of the theatre, and a good example of how discomfort can vanish when one is caught up in language and movement. We were at the National twice, catching it in some disarray, as it prepares to revise itself in time for a 50th anniversary celebration. There, we saw Alan Ackbourne’s A Small Family Business, an old play but totally contemporary in our greedy world; as if to prove it, we also saw Great Britain, the brand new riff on the newspaper scandals that tore open other veneers of our shared greedy culture.
On our first day in London, we went to the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, a new experience for Christiane, who is just beginning to read Woolf, and overwhelming for me, for many different reasons. Later in the week, we took the boat to the Tate Modern first to have lunch with Christiane’s daughter, Dr. Colette and her young niece Ohemma, who would also like to be a doctor, then to view the huge exhibit of Henri Matisse’s “Cutouts,” which included snippets of film showing him making them. Still later in the week we returned to the Tate to see a large retrospective of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, whose work I had first seen in Russia in 2006. As our last exhibit, Christiane chose an unusual riff on “Color” at the National Gallery, focused not only on the paintings but on the creation of paint itself.
I should mention one sharply different experience of London. When traveling with Mariam, for example, we always did a bit of shopping, and never missed a trip to Liberty’s, Mariam’s favorite. We ate in little tearooms she enjoyed in the shopping area, or off Piccadilly. This time, when Christiane and I took the bus to the Canary Wharf stop of the underground we took escalators down to a huge mall, where we could have coffee at Starbucks, use the bank machines, and buy the International New York Times. One morning, all four of us went to that underground mall to choose a Nespresso machine as a thank you gift to Clare and Didier. We could also have done the week’s marketing right there as well. Yes, London was different, but for me still a charmed place.
August 26, 2014
As Lucie wrote to describe the program: “Some sessions have been very practical in focus (e.g. how to construct a successful CV) but others have been based around the first-hand experiences of high-profile figures . . . and provide an invaluable opportunity for…a more interactive conversation.” She said I was welcome to attend both days. The participants were 20 postgraduate researchers, some writing doctorates, some working at temporary teaching jobs, and a few early career researchers. Saturday’s curriculum was, to me, both novel and practical. Dr. Yuwei Lin, of the Creative Arts, Farnham, offered first a talk on “Gendered Innovation in Information, Communication, and Entertainment Technologies,” and then, instruction in “How to Use Digital Mapping in Writing-Related Research.” The first session reminded me of the early days of women’s studies when we focused on sexist language and usage in all spheres of language and movement. The second was an area I’d like to know more about, since I like using maps and had not imagined their sex-bias. As part of the learning process, the group went out to a nearby neighborhood to remap an area, keeping in mind what might be useful to women with baby carriages, for example, or elderly people needing a place to rest.
On Saturday afternoon, a novel training experience: Organized by media professionals at Lincoln University, each participant taped both a radio and a television interview, both of which would be reviewed by the group on Sunday afternoon.
On Saturday evening, the participants, the two directors, and the two invited speakers attended a formal dinner at Wig & Mitre, whose address factually describes its location—12 Steep Hill, in an historic area of Lincoln, near the Cathedral and the Castle. The food was wonderful, and slow to arrive, which allowed me to get a sense of the participants, and to ask my own questions. “You all look very young to me,” I said, “Some of you could pass for teenagers.” They smiled happily, I thought, and when asked “How many of you are under thirty?’ more than the majority raised their hands. Most of the others were in their thirties.
No one had understood that I was 85—I think they thought they were inviting someone who was 65. Perhaps that’s the age that young people imagine when they think of someone who is, well, “old.” I asked other questions: Are they feminists? Have they been activists? What do they know about the past 40 to 50 years? And soon enough, I knew I could be useful even if I simply described what life was like for academic women half a century ago. And so on Sunday morning
I talked about my long, thwarted relationship with Virginia Woolf, my attempt in the 1950s to establish her as my dissertation subject, despite my professor’s negative views. I talked about making decisions later to give up scholarship for the Feminist Press, and what that meant now to my life. In short, I talked about choices. And I came away, as I had back in Taiwan, with mixed feelings, wondering whether anything I said had been useful. I came away seeing myself as something of a “relic,” a “throwback,” a living fossil, though I ignored the word “living.”
Sunday afternoon provided the excitement of radio and TV playbacks and some discussion, while a photographer worked around us. (The photograph of me is one he has asked to post on his web site.) In the final summary session, participants discussed the “wider impact of intellectual work,” beyond a single course of study or teaching. They noted their appreciation of entrepreneurial aspects of the workshop that might make them additionally employable, as in learning how “to market one’s self.” There was also a bit of talk about the “wider impact of intellectual work.”
It’s a month later, and I’m willing to say I don’t know whether I was of use. I am grateful to Susan and Lucy for the invitation and I want to offer special thanks to Rosalyn Casbard of Lincoln University, who arranged my air and train travel with special “care,” which meant that people met me to help me with luggage and provide a wheelchair. And I am very grateful.
August 4, 2014
The plans: for more years than I’d like to remember, my friend, Christiane Owusu-Sarpong (the translator into French of the four volumes called Women Writing Africa published by The Feminist Press), had been asking me to come to Strasbourg, France, where she lives, and go with her to her friends in Luzern, Switzerland. She also wanted to meet me in London so that we both might together enjoy museums and theaters. So I wrote and told her about the invitation from the English organizers—professors Lucie Armitt and Susan Watkins, both of whom I had met in Taiwan in 2012. Christiane was headed for London to visit her children who lived there. And so the first plan was to meet in London after the weekend workshop with 15 professionals in contemporary literature at the university in Lincoln.
In another blog, I will write about that weekend in Lincoln, but here I want only to outline the plan, the first obstruction which had to be overcome, and a bit of my experience thus far. The obstruction: How could I travel if I could not stand on my right foot? A podiatrist figured out that the knee surgery on the left leg had increased the difference between the lengths of each leg, causing intense stress on the right leg and ankle—all of which was confirmed by a pair of MRIs. Then, with some aids in my shoes, and with some heavy-duty but not ugly New Balance shoes, all of this completed within a week of departure (along with the purchase of a new large suitcase), I was able to depart on schedule, and without frightening any of the people who were expecting me.
The travel plan: After the weekend in Lincoln, I took a train to London, where Christiane met me, and took me to the elegant apartment in Canary Wharf of her son Didier Owusu Sarpong and his partner of many years and fiancée, Clare Podbury. We were there for a week, and from there went to three plays, four art exhibits, and one lecture, as well as much walking about, dining out, once at a famous Argentine restaurant, Gaucho.
We arrived in Strasbourg three days ago--in the last week of July—and will stay for two more, and leave for Luzern, Switzerland (by train) on Monday morning. There we will stay for a week with friends of Christiane, two women in their early eighties and their brother who is a decade younger. They have large summer house on the lake, and are eager to have us visit.
So there it is for a start. I am writing this on a computer that is difficult and with email that doesn’t work well on it, but I am going to try to send this to dear Jeannette Petras, who has been posting my blogs ever since I began to write them. She is in Ohio, and if all this works, she will have it up for me before long. I will try to send photos to her as well. And if all of this seems to be working, I’ll try again tomorrow to write something about each piece of the excursion I never thought I would enjoy. So here’s a moral—for me to remember. Don’t write off in haste what you have always enjoyed. Surprises are possible even in one’s eighties. And travel now is possible even for the moderately infirm, given the concern and attention of airlines and rail travel folks, to whom I feel grateful.
July 7, 2014
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.”
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.
April 30, 2014
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.
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.
April 25, 2014
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.