Florence in Words
February 20, 2018
It’s the Monday (Feb 19?) after a week of informal reunions with people I feel close to but don’t see often, itself an understatement. I can’t remember the last time, for example, I saw Nancy Hoffman, with whom I edited a volume of stories about Women Working for a huge Feminist Press project of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was one of a dozen books funded by Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the NEH, and it is still in print and still used in schools as a text. Nancy has worked on high school education projects for many years, and for many of which she also served on the Feminist Press Board of Directors. She was at Brown University when that institution decided to buy my papers and the Feminist Press papers.
Deborah Rosenfelt, lately a retired professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, was my student at Goucher College, and later, a staff member and an author at the Feminist Press, and of course Debby and Nancy were friends. They have made some plans to work together again on the disposal of my papers at Brown, where Nancy was working as assistant to the university’s president when I agreed to sell my papers and the Press’s to Brown. As some of you know, there has been no work on my papers at Brown.
Both of these women know Ellen Bass, the poet and the Goucher student with whom I edited the first No More Masks! She was absent this week, but plans to be here in New York in April, and perhaps we’ll have another reunion then.
Of course it’s wonderful for me to enjoy such occasions.
This one began in part as a mutual interest in hearing Marilynne Robinson speak at the 92nd Street Y about the new volume of essays she was publishing. And we did that, after a festive dinner. Nancy, Debby, and I were joined by my daughter-in-law, AnnJ Gumbinner, and by Elyse Hilton, a student of Ellen Bass’s. Elyse was the initial instigator who bought tickets to the lecture for me and for herself many months ago. Had I been my once normal self, we would have continued the festivities that evening after the lecture. But I was tired after the exertion of the dinner and the walk to the lecture hall as well as the lecture itself. Frankly, it was not really a “lecture.” Robinson read from a few pages of printed text and then sat on stage with a man who asked several questions while “Y” staff collected other questions from audience members.
Frankly I cannot remember one question or one answer, but I was glad to be there and glad to have sight of Robinson’s voice and demeanor. And Elyse gave me a copy of the essays which I will write about when I can. Most of all, I am glad to report that I enjoyed the evening and suffered no ill effects afterwards. Maybe I am coming back to “normal.”
February 19, 2018
Haven’t been here for too long, and I want to record that I actually went out of the house for two events, theatre events, I mean. Last Saturday to Encores for a medley of old musicals that was very enjoyable. And of course it was wonderful for me to actually get out of this apartment at last. And on this past Tuesday, again with Helene, I saw Eve Ensler’s latest one-woman play, a battle with cancer. She did it alone on a 90-minute staged performance, elegant, amazing, terrifying, and exhausting.
No incident on Saturday, but scary incidents on Tuesday: frozen legs at the house so that Toni, the afternoon doorman, had to lift me up and place me into the Carmel limo. Yes, he’s very strong. Once in the car, I couldn’t help worrying about how I would get out of the car. But then I could, and I could make my way into the theatre. And just when I thought all was well, since all I had to do was go up one step to my seat, I was frozen again, and could not lift my leg up the one step to my seat. So then a kind usher gave me a seat in the front row by asking people to change with me.
I watched the play’s 90 minutes with unswerving attention. Yes, I took a couple of those pills the neurologist suggested I take an hour before theatre begins. And that worked well enough for me to enjoy the play right to the end. “Enjoy” is the odd word here, since the enemy was cancer and the text was explicit, cruel, tortured, tense, without a second of relaxation. It was an amazing performance, grueling for the actor, and without a whisper anywhere in that hushed audience.
And now I am thinking about going to a lecture by Marilynne Robinson at the 92nd Street Y, not only with Elyse Hilton who bought our tickets more than a month ago, but also with daughter’-in-law AnnJ, and with former Goucher student Debby Rosenfelt, now retired professor at the University of Maryland, and former co-editor Nancy Hoffman, who used to be a Feminist Press Board member, perhaps even a founding Board member, and for decades one of the people closest to the reformation of U.S. high school education. AnnJ was quick to find a restaurant nearby, so that we can have a bit of time together before the lecture. And next time I will write about Marilynne Robinson.
Written February 15; revised February 17
January 31, 2018
I’m early this year, or I will be if I manage to write this page. Up to Friday, the fifteenth of September, 2017, I was moving right along to decent health. But on that day, something changed, when a careless or perhaps irritated cab driver threw my folded walker into the back of the cab directly into my left side (instead of putting it in the trunk with the groceries). Since that day, I have been an invalid, more or less confined to my apartment. Three months of no plays, films, ballet, opera, even dinners or lunches out, no visits to friends.
Yes, there have been a few visits to doctors, an X-ray, an MRI, even a visit from a doctor. But I cancelled a dental cleaning as not important enough (and now I’m a bit worried about that). I have many people to thank, including the heroism of Don Thomas who got me to a sports medicine doctor on Yom Kippur where I had an x-ray and a diagnosis that remained in place—an injury to the soft tissue around my left waist—until I had an MRI a couple of weeks ago. Then it was clear that I had also had an injury to a small spinal bone which was healing, and still a bit painful.
In addition to Don, Lucy Cajamarca, who has been my housekeeper for as long as I’ve been on West End Avenue, has kept me, my apartment, and the cat, Mr. Taksi, clean, sane, and even relatively cheerful. And then there’s Elyse Hilton, a writer and a friend, who has often anticipated my needs for company, reading, and literary conversation, as well as mundane help on the computer. And Paul Pombo, my accountant and good friend, who can unscramble even the worst of messes created by me and Microsoft 10. Always present is Helene Goldfarb, general guardian who goes to doctors with me and also cares for the Feminist Press, partly in my place.
Unfortunately for me, family members do not live in New York City, but in Washington D.C., Kansas, and Mississippi. Alice, like Ann J, is allergic to cats, and so their visits are somewhat curtailed. Most amazing was the visit at Thanksgiving from granddaughter and namesake Dr. Florence and husband Jason, who live in Los Angeles, so that I might meet their new baby, Paloma. And you know, if you’ve been reading my blog, that I never sent this one out. But I’m doing it now, and I’m trying to find a way to continue the blog, move it away from my physical illness and back to writing about books and politics again, or friends, some of whom are writers. I need the blog, even if no one reads it. I need it because I need to move my fingers as well as my brain. I need it because I also enjoy people who write comments. I wish some of you would be harder on me, would scold me for collapsing into mush. So I have Parkinson’s. There are worse things. I need some of that old fearlessness I once had. So feel free to scold me. I need scolding. Badly.
(begun in December, 2017; finished January 28, 2018)
January 2, 2018
So here are the members of this young family, with part of their equipment in hand and their nonchalance about the red eye. Like many American families, their relatives are spread out across the country, and they mean to see all of them, even if not all together. At Christmas, they visited with Jason's family in Louisiana and New Orleans, and Florence's mother in Mississippi joined them for part of the time. They'd already visited with Florence's brother Jack's family in Kansas, which includes two more young daughters, who are my great grandchildren.
And to those of you who are wondering about my state of health, I promise to get back to bookish blogs very soon. Yes, I am up and around and walking and trying to rebuild my life. Old age, as the saying goes, is not for "sissies." And complaining is useless. So here I go again.
November 29, 2017
What’s been wrong? Briefly, it all began with an accident on a day I felt great. I even felt as I began the day that I was going to be the person I used to be. My focus was on marketing, on my own, using my walker to get to the market, and then a shopping cart to collect my purchases. The cashier than called for an aide to help me find a cab and get my bags into the trunk along with my walker. I was seated on the right side of the taxi’s back seat when the driver chose to open the taxi’s left door and throw the walker in its folded state at my body. And there it hit my waistline on the left of my body. Yes, I felt a pain but could not imagine the problems that followed.
Within five minutes I was getting out of the cab, someone was stacking the grocery bags on a cart, and I was taking my shopping into my apartment. Yes, I continued to feel some pain, but I thought it would quickly disappear. I had to get some things into the fridge, and I had an appointment at the Rehab gym across the street.
By the time I got to the gym, the pain was intense. I was in tears as I showed the therapist where the pain was coming from. She suggested ice, which was comforting, and then she decided to walk me home, urging me to ice the area and to see a doctor if the pain did not diminish.
Within two days I could hardly walk at all without breath-taking pain. And even though it was then an important Jewish holiday, my dear friend, Don Thomas organized a driver with a car and a wheel chair to take me to a sports medicine building where I had x-rays and was diagnosed. I had a soft tissue injury, which would take considerable time to heal, given that I was 88, not 18 or even 48.
This was the beginning. Why did I cave in? Why did I not use my usual resources? Why did I seemingly disappear? Can I understand what happened? Can I ever recover?
January 23, 2017
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 19, 2016
Let me say, first, that I had hoped this letter would celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory as feminist, humanist, and an experienced internationalist. Some of you who will read this were present in the Chinese auditorium two decades ago, as I was, when Hillary spoke that famous sentence: “Women’s rights are human rights; and human rights are women’s rights.” So our work will have to continue, and I am certain that Hillary will be on the front lines of that work.
My personal news is mixed. I continue to miss my active life of walking and swimming, not to mention travelling. Despite a dozen doctors I have seen, there is no real diagnosis, but only placebos, some of which have back-fired and been therefore abandoned. Right now I am counting on rehab and a clever, hands-on therapist to strengthen my right leg so that I might be able to walk with only a cane again. But I want distant friends to know that I remain in my own apartment, and I have made various adjustments so that I can be independent.
I write a journal every day which goes into a folder. And once a week or at least three times a month I write a blog which is posted on my website that I continue to maintain, with the help of Jen Petras, my dear Ohio friend. Writing keeps me sane, I think, and it is, as for many people, one way to work out their depression. I’ve also been writing poems, some of which I may decide to post on the blog as well.
What else do I do (aside from seeing doctors)? I go to the opera and to theatre, usually with Helene Goldfarb, occasionally also with friends Shirley Mow, Elyse Hilton, Don Thomas, Jorge Cao. Elyse also visits to talk literature and to help me walk when the weather permits. AnnJ looks after my needs in certain magical ways, and she visits frequently, given that she lives in Washington, D.C.
The most striking family news is that granddaughter Dr. Florence Wright, named after me, moved to Los Angeles almost a year ago and was married last week to Jason Neville, a Louisiana-bred city planner who works for the mayor. Other family members continue to thrive in Kansas, Mississippi, D.C., and even Brooklyn, though except for AnnJ, I see them rarely.
What do I do aside from entertainment? I sit on four Boards, though I am not as active as I used to be. I still long for real work, though I am also a realist about its disappearance from my life. Occasionally, I have proofread or copyedited for the Feminist Press. I am very proud of the fact that six books published by the Press have had favorable reviews in the New York Times this year.
Finally, perhaps you are wondering how I manage being alone at 87. What do I do that gives me pleasure? Sometimes great pleasure? It’s reading and writing, of course. A good movie sometimes—I saw Rainman last night here in my study. A good play—Heidigger, which I’ve seen twice, was excellent, as was Master Harold and the Boys. As for books, the list would be too long for this letter. I continue to be a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, have read all his books.
And yes, there is the writing. Why don’t I get on with it? Why do I write only journals and blogs? It’s like asking the question about the election: why were so many people taken in by a fast-talking, know-nothing egomaniac (and these are kind words for the man)? There are many answers to these questions, mostly not heroic but mundane. The best I can do today is to say what my favorite diva sings, “I’m still here.”
Finally, I want to dedicate this blog to the little dog who kept me company when Don and Jorge travelled. Yoya died at ten of heart disease. The happiest, sweetest bundle of fur just keeled over upstairs, after a walk. She has been replaced—yes, it’s possible with pooches—by Fefa, hardly six months old. I know you will like the photos of Yoya.
August 1, 2016
Midsummer has come around quickly, and I’m still optimistic, though I have not had another diagnosis beyond A-Fib, and though I now own two “walkers”—machines on which I can lean as I walk. One of them, a three-wheeler with a bag for some carrying, Elyse Hilton found on Amazon, and set up for me when it arrived. The other was a surprise from my darling and intrepid daughter-in-law, AnnJ, who found a small, two-wheel walker that folds into a small unit that could fit beneath a theater seat. I was set to surprise her with the three-wheeler, but she really knocked me over with the one she had shipped to cousin Lori here in New York to present to me.
My friends know that I’ve been staunchly opposed to moving beyond the cane, seeing walkers as a negative signal one step from a wheelchair. But I was wrong, and now I know it. It was all probably vanity. I want my health (and even my youth)—who doesn’t? And I must learn to deal with reality. Aging is tough, on bodies and minds. It’s not for the faint of heart; it’s not for those who prefer living in delusions.
So, yes, I am grateful for work that interests me: for the volume to be called What I Left Out, I’m making progress on the difficult essay about my brother who committed suicide in 1985, and about whom I had little to say in my memoir. It’s always been difficult even to talk about him, and it’s one of the areas of my life I can honesty claim not to “know” or “understand.” I say that also about a number of things in my life. But of all of them, this is an old and life-long puzzle—and perhaps you have one in your life: How could two children, brother and sister, three years apart, be so different, never become friends, never share any of life’s views or values? I’ve assumed for years—yes, I’ve been trying to write about this for years—that I was probably guilty for not doing something to change the way we grew up and became adults. Hubris? Probably. Not for the first time in my writing life, I am discovering that writing helps to unlock mysteries in one’s own life. I’m discovering once more that writing stirs my memory. August 1 was my brother’s birthday. He would have been 85. He killed himself in 1985, when he was 53.
July 1, 2016
I was shocked to realize that I had not written a blog in more than a month. Do I have an excuse? Do I understand why this has happened? My last blog is up: on my dear friend and author Louise Meriwether, who is at work on a film script for her novel, Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, a possibility that came out of the Feminist Press event I wrote about in May, in my last blog. At this end of this blog, I will describe the newest event in Louise’s life. And keep in mind that she is almost ten years older than I.
What I’ve been doing this past month is, once more, attempting to get some medical clarity about why I can’t walk easily or normally. My general care doctor’s response to my being able to walk only very slowly was that that was sometimes an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Which made me think of seeing a neurologist, perhaps the very one who had helped Mariam Chamberlain. This man saw me immediately and recommended some tests, one of which indicated that my balance must be somewhat related to the lack of a functioning right ear. This doctor tried to help by prescribing medication which would assuage the balance in some chemical fashion. Good idea perhaps, but my system rejected the medication as causing still more imbalance and dizziness. Then we talked a bit about the fact that I was walking anyway, but only when accompanied by a strong person whose arm stabilized me. I then mentioned that because I was so out of shape, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. The next thing I was directed to do was to see a cardiologist and I was given a name, a phone number and urged not to waste a moment before calling.
I followed instructions, made an appointment, and then thought about it. I felt silly because, within the last six months, I had had two or three examinations by my general practitioner and had asked him about my heart and had heard him pronounce my heart excellent. So why was I incurring more expense and spending more tax dollars? But then I thought about a recent walk with Don Thomas four or five short blocks to the AT&T computer store on 72nd Street. Yes, it was a hot day. But we had to stop every few steps, and in the middle we sat down on a bench I had spotted.
So I called again and requested the appointment on Tuesday of this week. And the examination was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Two different brief procedures, the first resulting in a page the doctor could hold in his hand when he came in to do a further test which appeared on a computer in the room as he moved his “wand” around my heart. The result: indeed something is “wrong,” though the doctor claimed it was not “terribly serious.” I have A-Fib for short. The atrial or top part of my heart doesn’t seem to be working, which has resulted in the bottom working harder than ever. At least that’s my way of thinking about it.
So, yes, I need more tests: I’m to go to the doctor’s office next Thursday to be strapped to a small machine for the following 24 hours, which will produce a printout that will describe how my heart copes with various things I might do in that time. Yes, will keep you posted.
Note promised about Louise Meriwether. The Feminist Press has announced a fiction contest in Louise’s name. See the website for detailed information about the rules and rewards. http://www.feministpress.org/news/fp-tayo-literary-announce-louise-meriwether-first-book-prize