Florence in Words
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 theyíve 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 youíve been reading my blog even occasionally, you might know that Iíve 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.
December 29, 2014
The years do pass more and more quickly in old age. Yes, thatís where I amóin old ageóand if I have begun to feel it keenly, it comes as an aftermath of the knee surgery, which ironically has made it impossible, so far, to regain my former mobility on foot. Yes, I can walk up and down steps without pain, but were you to see me in the street today, moving slowly and awkwardly with a cane, you would label me a disabled person.
So I must begin by explaining the aftermath of my knee surgery. The knee mended and I regained its flexion. But the surgery produced another problem: the surgical leg is now much longer than the right leg. As a result, walking has been destroying my right foot, especially its ankle tendon along with the soft tissue along the footís right side. The more I walk, the more I am harming the right foot. According to my surgeon, this sometimes ďhappens.Ē He has recommended a foot doctor, who has said she can do nothing for my condition. She has just me to someone who may be able to build a special insert for my shoes or order a special shoe constructed that would balance the length of both legs.
Not understanding any of this, early this year I accepted a speaking engagement at the University of Lincoln in England, and thanks to the generosity of my African project colleague, Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, I planned, with her, a three-week stay in London, Strasbourg, and Luzern. After the lecture in Lincoln, in mid-July, she metme in London, and we stayed for a week with her children in their beautiful apartment along the Thames. We went to several theatres and to museums, as I lived on Tylenol and tried to ignore the pain. Midway, in Strasbourg, I had to cut back, and in Luzern, I could do very little walking. Fortunately, I was in a beautiful place, and fortunately I had George Eliotís Middlemarch with me, as well as interesting people to talk with who were also kind about driving me to see something of the area and feeding me wonderful food and conversation.
Family news: A month before that trip, I had flown to Kansas to visit with Alice, my daughter, and her son Jack, his wife Maban, and their two darling daughters, Kennedy and Mina. Because Alice had her car, and because we didnít try walking except to shop or visit a park with the children, I enjoyed being with the young people and especially the children. Through the summer, daughter-in-law AnnJ was a frequent visitor, and my step-son David some of the time, in part because their daughter, Miriam, is also in N.Y. She has left science for high-level computer work, and has just begun her first fabulous job. Dr. Florence, my other granddaughter, is working in oncology-radiology at Queens General Hospital, though her formal appointment is at Mount Sinai. She is happy in New York.
What can I say about the state of the world? I am pleased to see some young people at home and abroad taking non-violent action on behalf of civil rights, and some days I can feel part of a previous generation that led the way. On other days I fret that I can do nothing but write a check, and not very large ones at that. I continue to believe in the good sense of President Obama, and hope (as I remember Mariam Chamberlain did) to be able to vote for Hillary for President while I still have my marbles (which I do). President Obamaís actions on immigration and Cuba have cheered me, but since I read the Times, I am also disheartened daily by the atrocities of governments and the brutality of assassins here in Brooklyn and all over the world. I avoid cinema that pictures a future filled with still more brutality, and canít help wondering whether my two and five-year oldgreat granddaughters will have to survive such a dreadful world.
My warm wishes to you for the new year.
December 9, 2014
Iíve just finished watching Gravity, and I can understand why, a year ago, it was a possible contender for the Academy Award. Itís 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 subjectóthe terrors of racism, albeit historically presentedówon, 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 ďto teach them a lesson,Ē 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 ďgo back where you came from.Ē
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 didnít stop in time. As a white policeman approached my car, I screamed, ďDonít touch me. Get away from me.Ē 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 motheróboth lawyersóhad prepped her and her older brother about what to do if stopped by police, wherever they might be. ďDonít fight it. Donít get angry. Do what you are told. Be passive. Say you want to call your father.Ē
I canít explain rationally why all this came out after ďGravity,Ē unless itís the word itself. Yes, it means the force that keeps us anchored to the earth, but it also means something of extreme significance. And thatís 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, ďHow 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. Iíve been aware for more than a week that the depression that usually lives with me, if not in me, has gone away. Perhaps itís only temporary, but it is gone, though I donít think I can explain how I know. Seems mysterious. Probably is.
I am sleeping a bit less than I do when Iím depressed. And Iím dreaming a lot, sometimes very strange dreams, which I do also when Iím depressed. So thatís not it. First clue: Iím eating more than usual, and nibbling as well, on nuts, fruit, even bits of chocolate or cookies. When Iím depressed, I eat very small meals, Iím usually not interested in food, and donít nibble at all. Just this week, the scale showed a quick gain of some five pounds, so perhaps thatís 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 didnít 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 depressedóand several of them about being in that state.
Final clue: Response to visitors. When Iím depressed, I usually prefer being alone and when I can, I put off appointments, visitors, certainly people I donít 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 2011óthe first time I went to Ellen Bassís 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 didnít know why, or even when, much less where it had gone.
So how does it feel to be without depression? How does one describe ďabsenceĒ? Does it feel ďnormalĒ? I need to work at this, for I canít describe the feeling except as absence. Itís not thereóor here. I donít ďhaveĒ it. When I ďhadĒ 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 Iíve tried to write and rewrite this blog. Yesterday, I wandered into the area of religion, but Iíve cut that out and left it for another day. Iím going to try to look at the day: itís a blue-sky day out my window, royal blue. And from here I canít see signs of a stiff wind and Iím too high to see the people on the streets below bundled in layers, hats, and scarves. Iím 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 thatís the key: Itís not finished, but Iím sending it. Makes no sense, I know. But perhaps Iím too eager to make sense.