As I made my bed this morning, I thought, how easy it is to smooth out the wrinkles, line up the pillows, pull up the quilt. It takes only less than a minute, and yet, some mornings I avoid the ritual. Is it a sign of health to make my bed or to ignore it? Or is the question irrelevant? Am I searching for meaning in a world that seems purposeless? Or if the world is not purposeless in general, still, I can find no purpose in it for myself. Yes, my friends tell me this is simply the aftermath of finishing a huge project. The slough of despond—does anyone remember that expression?—will soon depart and I will be engaged in a new project, feeling hopeful again.
I have six projects waiting: the old Virginia Woolf thesis; the new book about Tillie; a book about Mariam Chamberlain’s life; a book about editorial judgment and advice; a dozen essays to be called What I Left Out, the first two already drafted; and, with Marsha Saxton, an international anthology by disabled writers based on the book we did years ago. And yet, from day to day, I write complaining emails chiefly to Alida Brill, longer and more dour entries in private journals, do the New York Times crosswords, and reread Dorothy Sayers novels, even the most boring ones.
Yes, I have also crocheted two baby hats for new twins of Elizabeth and Chelsea, Helene Goldfarb’s cousins, and I have relearned the crocheting of little circles for a blouse I began in Russia in 2005, though I put it all away when I grew impatient with connecting the circles. Yes, I can see the pattern, but I don’t want to complete it. I am clearly afraid of completing anything else.
Perhaps I learn from what a psychotherapist told me in the early 1990s when I was so depressed that I could not write the Introduction to the 1993 edition of No More Masks! My mother had sunk rapidly into the depths of Alzheimers, and Dr. Dalsimer told me that I had to abandon the hope that one day we would have that good relationship which we had never had. I had to face facts resolutely, and eventually I was able to do so, and then to write and to see the book published. Perhaps I can now see how to treat myself—at least with an analysis, if not with a cure.
I worked part-time for many years on a memoir, and I began it again at 79 and wrote for two intense years. I insisted that it also contain a history of an institution responsible for beginning the publishing of “lost” women writers and thus the history of women, not only in the U.S. but especially in India and Africa. So it is a hybrid: half a personal story; half an institutional history and not only of the Feminist Press, but of women’s studies and feminism inside academe.
So why am I depressed? Because I am heir to the elitist world in which I became a publisher, in which nothing mattered except the print media. Nothing existed until it was reviewed in the New York Times, not to mention the L.A. Times and other newspapers. Well, there was a lovely early review of my memoir in Ms. Magazine by Deirdre English, and there was an excerpt in Lilith, and this month there’s another excerpt in the Women’s Review of Books. And here is my analysis: I am depressed because I feel ignored by the elite world, though I know also, even at the same moment that I hold that thought, that I have never been a part of that elite world. So why should I be noticed?
Indeed, what is remarkable is one piece of notice that I’ve had from a blogger in Indiana named Duncan: see http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com/2011/06/and-howe.html
And I predict you will mark his blog as one to follow. He calls himself “The Promiscuous Reader,” and reader he is. When I asked him how he happened to read my book, he said that Joanna Russ had once mentioned my name to him in connection with Leonard Woolf’s asking me “why a pretty girl like you would want to spend all her time among dusty books.” He continued: “Then a couple years later I came across Myths of Coeducation, remembered your name from Russ, read your book and liked it. Every ten years or so I reread Russ’s book, and that kept your name in my mind. I also must have read about you in connection with the Feminist Press. So when I noticed A Life in Motion on the new arrivals shelf at the university library, I looked through it, thought it looked interesting, and checked it out…as you can see from the blog post, I found A Life in Motion very rewarding to read.”
The blog itself bears rereading several times, since it’s rich in anecdotes about the early years of the Feminist Press, and about my efforts to find interest in India in women writers of their own. The blogger allows himself to comment on the sexism with which women writers are still regarded, including and perhaps especially women writers of science fiction, his special interest. He is also sharp about social class, questions whether I should be considered working class since I’ve had a university position. I’d respond that I tried for nearly 40 years to disguise my origins, but then, through Tillie and Jack Olsen, I gained fresh perspectives of my life. I couldn’t have written my book without consciousness of class. And I appreciate this blogger’s attempt to defend me from attacks of elitism. I appreciate especially his calling my book “a valuable corrective to the record on the history of Second Wave feminism.” He continues, “As Howe reminds those who need to be reminded, Second Wave feminists (including but not only Howe) came to feminism by way of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Duncan, the “promiscuous reader,” calls his blog, “This Is So Gay: A Commonplace Blog.” Nothing “commonplace” about you, dear Duncan, except in the manner of Virginia Woolf’s “common reader.” May your readers multiply and may you continue to write to educate and enchant them.