July 27, 2017
Usually, my reason for silence is depression. I don’t want people to know I’m depressed. I feel guilty for feeling depressed. I’m so privileged, I tell myself, I have no right to feel depressed. But there it is: I’m depressed, and after some silence, when I expect that the small group of readers who look at my blog already suspect that depression has me in grip again, I confess. So boring, as grey as the world outside my window today, half in rain, half in fog.
I’ll try some comfort. Two weeks ago, I passed the half-year point with Mr. Taksi, the cat who was to save me from depression. And yes, he still has the power to make me laugh even when I am supposedly teaching him something or even when I am severely cross with him for absconding with my favorite pen or pencil and hiding them so that he can’t get to them either. It’s clear that they won’t turn up until I buy a new couch. And he continues to follow me from room to room, and sometimes it’s because it’s nearing the time for dinner, though other times, it’s that Mr. Taksi wants to play.
Other symptoms: I don’t even try to write poems. I write boring journals that say only that I am depressed, or that I’ve broken a dish.
My friends continue to ask me about going to the movies, and I continue to say no, I’m not interested. So what have I done for the past two weeks?
This is a bit laughable: I’ve been reading—for the second time—The Japanese Lover
by Isabel Allende. About a host of characters the most interesting of whom live in an idyllic old age home. No, I don’t believe it depressed me. I won’t blame the book, though it certainly has features that one might label “dark”—the treatment of Japanese during the Second World War, the sexual torture of one Eastern European young girl who is trying to leave that history behind her. And, of course, the inevitable death of the major character. So, yes, it’s a novel chock full of life as well as death and I can’t blame it for my depression.
And I will decorate with photos of Mr. Taksi…perhaps they will make this worth reading. (written on July 14, 2017)
February 17, 2017
If you’ve ever had a cat, you know what I mean when I say that cats live in a world of their own. My apartment is on the 24th floor, and there is precious little going on outside my windows. But not to Mr. Taksi. His favorite spot is the especially wide windowsill in the living room. And he makes getting to that spot a challenge to be conquered every day in a new manner. I’ll try to illuminate with a picture or two, but only those who know cats will be able to envision how delicately Mr. Taksi has to step among succulents so as to avoid knocking them from their stems.
There is no single way to get to the place where he can spread out, and getting there is half the fun. I’d have to run a video for you to see how it happens, but there are other things to talk about in what I am calling Mr. Taksi’s World. There is the question of closets: I have an abundance of them, and they open either with sliding doors or with ordinary doors. Some of them are large enough for a cat to get lost in. And Taksi has been locked in almost every one of those closets, since among his skills is an ability to slip through a door even when I think I am watching for him.
And then there is the question of eating. Mr. Taksi won’t accept that I have offered him a place mat on which I would place his food in a beautiful Japanese bowl. Not on his life. He treats the place mat as his resting place, even when it’s crammed into the corner of the kitchen where he’s fed. He demonstrates twice a day that he must sit on the place mat, no matter my wishes.
Finally, a word about depression for those who know that virus. It’s not gone, but it’s not grabbed me as before. For this cat makes me laugh out loud, and if you’re laughing, it’s hard to be depressed at the same moment. He makes me laugh by turning everything he can into a toy: favorites include the ends of pens, crinkly paper squeezed into a ball, an old sock rolled into a ball; in short, anything that can be batted around the apartment from wooden floors to carpets and back again. He’s knocked some things under the couch and the fridge, where they are inaccessible, but he hasn’t forgotten them. Searching for them, he comes up with his white front paws turned charcoal. And my hollering “no, no, no” dissuades him only temporarily. To be continued….
January 23, 2017
It’s 9 p.m., Friday, January 20, 2017. Yes, I haven’t written a blog about my new cat, his beauty and his “talking” to me as though he had some Siamese streak in him, my calling him Mr. Taksi, in part because of my taxi-driving father I loved. I’ve had the cat since January 3, although two days after he arrived, his eyes told me he was ill. At the same time, whatever is wrong with me, especially my ability to walk, has been growing worse so that I cried in rehab, not only because of the pain, but because it all felt so useless: walking three steps forward and metaphorically falling four steps backward. So what to do?
Victoria Pajak (Vicki), the woman who has been coming to my apartment at eight p.m. to give Mr. Taksi his evening eye drops and throat drops, knew nothing of my state of mind, but she chose one moment last night to tell me about her two cats, both of whom had been strays, and one of whom was totally blind. The two, normal and blind had been adopted together and they had grown up as close friends and delightful pets.
So, yes, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, at least for an evening. But it’s hard that I can’t pick up my cat—my arms are no longer strong enough to hold a 13-pound cat. Nor can I get down on the floor with him. And it will take some time for him to learn that he can have petting from me only when on the couch or the bed.
As for my own physical state, I’m trying to get an appointment with a couple of neurologists and hear their takes on neuropathy, if that’s what I’ve got (along with depression). I am trying to think about ways to be cheerful—and there’s politics to depress me daily, so that’s not the route to follow. Suggestions? I have used the usual: yes, I have my brain, and my fingers still work at the keyboard; I live in New York and there are taxis to get me to appointments; I still have a few old friends and I have made a few young new friends. I have a comfortable apartment. And I don’t have cancer or Alzheimer’s. So, Florence, I talk to myself: cheer up!
*Note: I’ve been typing journals usually every day, since returning from Mississippi’s Freedom Schools in August, 1964 and 1965. And long before computers, I typed journals on a typewriter. When I travelled, I wrote in tiny notebooks (and I have more than 100 of them). Later, of course I had a laptop when I traveled. These journals were both private as well as political. I would not have thought of sending them out to the world. But that’s where a blog has to go, and I was urged by Feminist Press to start a blog after my memoir appeared. It was hard not to confuse the blog with the journal, but I worked that out. I’m writing this today because this is the first of what I can call a blog/journal. It’s more personal than usual, or at least that’s how it seems to me. It’s also being filed with the journals, not the blogs.
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.
April 11, 2016
This has been the shortest span of depression I can remember, and though I don’t feel completely free, I recognized the moment when the depression began to slip away. Paul Pombo was here, to deliver my tax return, and, yes, that had something to do with the relief I felt physically, especially since he coupled his remark that I don’t owe anything with another that I ought to go to Mallorca. And as if that were not enough, my daughter Alice Jackson called soon after Paul left to tell me that she’d booked us into a resort in Florida (formerly a navy base, since Alice was once in the navy) for a week in May. “You need to get out of New York’s weather for a bit,” she said.
So is that the solution? Movement? Or is it the water promised, the swimming and the snorkeling? And what does it all mean? Or is asking for meaning a waste of one’s energies? Why not just learn to live and enjoy the act of living, yes, despite infirmities, limitations, and the loss of independence and especially the loss of being able-bodied. Would that I could. Would that I were physically stronger, even as I was two or three years ago before the knee surgery and all that followed it.
I’ve left out for the moment my metaphysical connections to the world and so let me comment on what I did Sunday and review what the day’s politics have to do with my depression. I attended a fine panel of political commentators gathered together at Roosevelt House by the Board of the Hunter College High School Alumni Association (on which I sit as secretary). They were all our own alumni—graduates from classes mainly in the 1990s: two people from the New York Times, Ian Trontz and Aaron Retica, who was a brilliant chair of the panel; Amy Davidson of the New Yorker; Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia University; and perhaps the best known, Chris Hayes of MSNBC. (A niggling point I will mention only is that of attire: the token woman and the token Black professor were dressed formally. The three white men might have just gotten out of bed to romp with their kids in a park. So nothing has changed in that regard: women and blacks are still expected to show up looking appropriate. White menfolks can arrive in any condition and they are accepted for the brilliant light they shine.)
And I’m not taking anything away from them: the panelists were all fine. The chair was particularly effective; Amy Davidson and Chris Hayes talked the most. And Ian and Jamal were called on for their particular expertise. And there was much talk about the impact of “movements” upon the “rules” of the two political parties, especially with regard to decisions about whether they were “free” or “locked in,” and how an electorate might respond to unseating Trump, for example, or to seating Clinton rather than Sanders.
On the other hand, I was not easy with the discussion about young women choosing Sanders over Clinton, saying that gender had nothing to do with their choice. More important, I was more than annoyed by several in the audience emphasizing that Hillary Clinton was not the “last chance” for a woman to lead this country, that Elizabeth Warren “could get a nomination in a second,” and that there were more than a dozen women in the senate with more experience and acumen than Cruz, or even than Obama had eight years ago.
All this makes me very sad. I wish I could say “energized” and ready to go work for Hillary’s election. I am convinced intellectually and emotionally that we need Hillary Clinton now, and that there is no one who combines her quality of experience, knowledge, and heart. And she clearly has the energy for the job. I would not call Bernie Sanders a windbag, though his speeches are by now tedious repetitions that anyone could offer. But he’s had no experience that matches hers not only in foreign affairs, but in the politics of a large state like New York, and in spending eight years in the White House working on many issues including health care. Nor can I see him moving his pie-in-the-sky promises into bills that would pass Congress.
I am sorry I didn’t get to say this, but I say it here: We’d be fools not to use the competence and knowledge and heart of Hillary Clinton right now. Yes, other women will follow her, but there is only Hillary right now.
March 28, 2016
I cannot remember the last time I was depressed, but here I am back again in that state. And I can’t explain it. Of course I can’t explain it. And I’ve talked only with the two people who are trying to help me physically, and who don’t know me very well, and who are therapists, but not talk-therapists. I must say at once that I chose very well, since both of them told me that they, too, have suffered from depression, and they are never absolutely free of it.
Yes, that was not only surprising; it was comforting. I expect that they would like their privacy maintained and so I won’t even use their first names. My goal here is to explain my absence and perhaps to tell “you”—whoever you are reading these blogs—why I’ve been silent. And perhaps say something about what I’ve been doing.
I did a long proofreading job for Feminist Press—a WSQ volume on the theme of Survival, and, yes, with many depressing pieces. And yes, as a news-junkie I continue to fear the craziness of the current stream of political chatter. Only hearing Hillary calms me. I don’t often listen to Bernie, since he doesn’t change his speech enough to make this anything but a chore. But I did hear him out as he spoke to a few thousand young people in Oregon last night, and he’s still talking in generalities about a world that he couldn’t produce even in two terms in the White House, and even with Congressional partners. And people cheer and seemingly believe him. I find this so disheartening, especially since no one can comment on the absence of the emperor’s clothes, not Hillary, of course, and not other Democrats who are in awe of the young, enthusiastic crowds who chant “Bernie, Bernie,” as though he were a media rock star.
And I’ve been avoiding the Republican chatter these past few days. The less said about them the better. They seem to be in need of shooting themselves in the foot. And perhaps the glow is fading from Mr. Trump’s hairpiece, if that’s what it is up there.
But I have one or two things to report that are cheery. First, Helene’s surgery went well and she (who has not as much as a single depressed bone in her body) is already going to parties. What a lucky duck she is!
Second, I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson again, this time Home, which for some unknown reason I had skipped over—went from Housekeeping to Gilead to Lila. And now I’m two-thirds through Home, and finding it splendid. Yes, cheering, amazing. I have put it down today only because I need to finish assembling the material for my income taxes so that they can be sent off with my dear friend/accountant on Monday morning. No, I won’t talk with him about depression.
But it has been helpful to talk with people who know what it’s like and who are in the helping professions. As a teacher many years ago, I could sometimes talk with a student about her feelings, or convince her to write about them. And perhaps I’ll try more directly in the next few days to describe how I feel. No, there’s no quilt wrapped around me, not this time.
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.
March 5, 2012
I thought it had gone, and last week I had said so to Dr. D. I felt good, had written several new blogs, was reading again—whole issues of NYRB and the New Yorker, as well as the NYT daily, and novels, of course. I’ve begun Lessing’s four novellas called The Grandmothers. I had even begun on the income tax, spent two nights sorting, and knew I would need only three or four nights more. (All best done while watching television.) I had also taken some initiatives: had made one appointment with a friend coming to town from Maine, and another with a young colleague to begin work at the New York Public Library on a book together. I had also gone to my first appointment with the “balance doctor,” who had assured me that I did not need a cane. I needed to work on some exercises he was giving me.
And after my appointment with Dr. Jamey, I went for a walk on Third Avenue and bumped into the Mephisto shop. I was, I thought, feeling great. So I went in and bought three pairs of shoes. This is the first time I’ve done anything like that since returning from Vietnam. Yes, I was feeling good. So what happened?
Sunday afternoon, when I had planned to do grocery shopping, I sat down at the computer instead, answered a couple of emails, and then, perhaps a fatal move, went on to my Scorpion game. Why? I don’t know. I thought I’d play for ten minutes, but I should have known better. I played for two hours, occasionally asking why, but not stopping. I even broke the rules I had long since made for stopping. What was going on? And then it came to me and I thought, “It was back.”
The next thought was that it had slipped in, the depression had slipped in. “Slipped in?” I said aloud, with a question mark at the end of it. “How could it slip in? Had it been out having a good time and had come home too late to announce its return?”
Well, I was still waiting for Marietta, my god-daughter, who had come up from Washington on her own two-day agenda, but was spending her only evening having dinner with me. I would quit Scorpion and write a blog. Maybe writing blogs sends the depression away. Maybe it would have to back off again and get lost.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt the depression before as a “presence.” As a quilt, yes, a heavy blanket, yes. But not a presence. But this afternoon, I felt it as a presence and an enemy, something that is both inside me and outside, something that does not wish me well, that scares me, that itself is scared of something, and of course the first thing that always comes to my mind when I think of fear is not my father’s suicide, but my mother’s Alzheimer’s.
Perhaps it is my birthday coming up very soon now. Perhaps that frightens me, the idea that I am getting closer to the losing of faculties. But why do I continue to fear when so many doctors have said I have nothing to worry about—a neurologist, an ear/nose/throat doctor, and my dear therapist. But how could they know? I ask myself. Aren’t they simply being kind?
January 1, 2012
Lady Borton and I in Vietnam.
Apologies, apologies, apologies. I ought to fill the page, many pages, with that word. I’ve been silent since early October, perhaps mourning for the loss of that family who stayed with me for a week and then returned to their own life (see blog and photos just below). On November 1, I had to wake up to the realities of two weeks in Vietnam on a schedule that would have tired a teenager. But that’s the way my dear friends, Lady Borton and Nguyen Minh Ha, lead their lives. And I managed, though the journey back—14 hours (from Seoul to New York) sitting upright with leg cramps most of the way, after a five-hour layover and another four-hour flight—sent me to bed for a couple of weeks and the depression returned. (more…)
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