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Milan Diaries


Via Navigli, Sunday March 25th, Antiques sale …


with my friend, Luca Gandolfi

The cats of Campagnatico,
Which are never fully grown and have never
Been kittens, will not move for the honking motorist
But expect to be gone round — Peter Porter (1929-2010)

Friends,

The last of my Milan diaries. I’ve described wandering in central Milan on Friday, 4/16 afternoon and evening, and Tuesday, Wednesday and our neighborhood. We are come to all day Friday, Saturday morning, and a long Sunday morning and again in the evening into night.

We began Friday 4/23 by heading for fabric stores and bookshops. Laura likes to sew and make herself clothes. These were goals to take out outside the core place of cathedral, castle, and environs. We took trolleys and trams to find two fabric stores and two used bookshops.


New Tess, Milan

When we entered the fabric stores, at first the owner and/or employees wondered at us, and seemed decidedly uneager — they seemed to me to sell to the privileged. There was a language barrier, but as soon as they realized Laura meant business, somehow all was accommodated, and she came away with some beautiful material folded in rectangles in big shopping bags. For myself I bought Enzo Striano’s Il Resto Di Niente, a fictionalized biography of the later 18th century Italian woman political radical and poet, Eleonora Pimentnel de Fonseca, tragically executed during the brief Neapolitan republic of 1798, Elena Ferrante’s La figlia oscura, and Mario Soldati’s Lettere da Capri. Used bookstores in Italy are polite, quiet places, small, subdued, books set out in alphabetical order by the author’s name within categories.

We did go to Rizzoli’s and I could not find any Italian book that I might want that I did not own already. I was dismayed to discover that like US bookstores, there are less books than there used to be. Things are set up in fanfare ways: I found and bought (Italian) Atwood’s L’Assassino Cieco, traduzione di Raffaella Belletti; in the “classics” E.M. Forster’s Passaggio in India, traduzione di Adriana Motti.

What did we notice in all (some elite and expensive) and ordinary neighborhoods of apartment houses, shops, small parks? Laura noticed that Italian women tended to dress in black. A male-kind of jacket, sweater, subdued, black skirt. Very unchallenging, unobtrusive. Men very casual. Suits for those clearly going to offices.

People are permitted to bring dogs into public transportation as long as the dog is somehow kept close in a carrier of some sort. All on leashes and all small. People must buy or adopt dogs small enough to put in carriers to take on buses and trains. The dogs look nervous when the jump is made onto a trolley, but trust to the master-friend. Just about all these dogs had sweaters on (it was cold), but I spied no boots, so I conclude no corrosive salt is used to remove snow and ice (as in NYC). One woman’s dog’s sweater matched the color of her cell phone cover.

It was distressing to me to see how beggars behaved – very like in France. Utterly humbling themselves. Abjectly squatting on the street like they were praying. Alas, there was no place next to one of them I kept seeing to put money.

We then hopped onto a trolley that took us back to the park in the back of the Castle Forza (which I described in my last blog), and visited a museum with very contemporary art:


Outside sculpture

Unlike older museums (Castle Sforza or the Metropolitan in NYC), where you meander about unexpected corridors, mazes, but like contemporary ones (the Whitney, MoMA), all is clearly laid out, a few select and permanent rationalized exhibits labelled. We spent time in three.

The first was a Rick Owens exhibit (see one of Laura’s blogs on one of his fashion shows): a vast installation of a hundred or so mannikin models in de-humanized, aggressive, parodic outfits, a dark disquieting satire on what we wear and fashion shows themselves:

After a few rooms of these, we sat and watched films of models doing shows of these clothes — many with heavier bodies, many people of African heritage. Haunting, and creepy images.

They still had some of the traditional kinds of art one sees; there was a sculpture exhibit of the history of the bicycle, and intriguing paintings and photos on walls here and there:


A photo-painting of realistically conceived figures looking at art

On the upper floor there was a vast exhibit showing the visitor how we live now or how we ought to live — very modern furniture and appliances; there was a kind of neon-lit forest of electric poles. What kinds of habitations we make for ourselves, how many of our rooms don’t make sense if the point were to be comfortable.

We walked around the park to where the two main streets are, and found a restaurant for lunch. Unluckily, it featured bad service and worse food, but from there we spotted a sight-seeing bus-stop, so we hurried away and took a bus all around another part of Milan. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the microphone sets which were supposed to tell us where we were and the history of what we were seeing didn’t work.

Evening was coming, we were very tired by this time, and hopped off the bus around the shopping centers near the Cathedral and walked through very expensive shops, took a train back to a supermarket and then a cab home. You can see our feet had had enough. We stayed close to our apartment, we had reserved a table at a restaurant nearby so exclusive you could miss it as you walk by. The meal was exquisitely good.


This was the appetizer from another night: a restaurant where you pay a set fee and have many small courses where you have a taste of this or that food, and with each a glass of wine.

Home again that night to read quietly and rest.

Saturday, 4/24: we had seen on our peregrinations what we thought were basilicas, and decided the next day we would try to go into one of these. We tried for three, and they were either turned into schools or closed.

I suppose if you use Road Scholar, you won’t make these kinds of mistakes but we did learn that basilicas have found new uses in 21st century Milan.


An horse-shoe shaped church in front of the cemetery

What we did happen on was an an enormous monumental cemetery. If you have deluded yourself into assuming the impulse which made Egyptian pyramids is gone, think again. Huge cement buildings as crypts, tombs, massive sculptures of idealized figures (mythological, Catholic-religious, some realistic), many doing things (looking like they are thinking, or about to pick something up, the material they are made of often in bad shape (the damp is not good) in which families asserted their wealth, status, heritage, some of them built as far back as late Roman times, some dated 2015.


One of several wide and long lanes


Yes that’s me looking cold

The newer ones had photographs framed. The effect very creepy. Worse yet was a large house-like structure: we went into it and discovered that the poorer could buy a sort of drawer or shelf; rows and rows of these with people’s names. This reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery where there are now vast rectangles of cremated bodies and urns, each having a kind of drawer with the name of the person who once lived on its outside plaques. People were coming in to leave flowers. Everywhere also evidence that this was a way of extending the person’s life, memory, creating let’s say a deathtime. Laura fascinated took quite a number of photos. I’ll spare you the rest except for one of a cat who has found a home there:

He or she has a corner with an umbrella and under it dishes of food and water. Puss did not appear to have any cat-mates.

Perhaps our the pleasantest time we had was on Sunday morning,4/25, at the Antiques market, where I came upon my friend, Luca (above) on the lookout for good rare books. He did find one, a nineteenth century edition of Dante’s Commedia with illustrations. As I reported in my first blog this market runs up and down the length of a central canal, spreads out to side streets, and as the day progresses all around open cafes, and gradually walls are covered with artists pictures, and people come from all round to buy both ordinary clothes and needed things as well as art and craft objects. I wanted to buy a lovely watercolor of a woman and daughter on the seashore but couldn’t convey in Italian I wanted to be shipped as well as wrapped. Maybe she didn’t have any shipping services. I now regret not persisting. I worried over the price and that I might not get the picture by mail after all. It was a woman on a beach with a young girl.

It’s a flea market too: every kind of hand and machine crafted object you can imagine; some very old, some made recently, art. People talking to one another. Friendliness. I bought a sculpture in a sort of China of a sleeping cat. I looked for Trollope in Italian but no luck; most of the Italian books I found I wanted to read I already had. People kept coming and stalls being added to. There was also a marathon running in Milan that. Every one knew of the massive march in Washington DC and approved heartily.

I found the ceramic cat I described and took home (scared that wrapped up it would be taken for a bomb at the airport but it was not),


Her face held up to the light by Izzy

and here I’ll add a pink warm woolen cap with a fluffy pom-pom, lovely part leather gloves, grey on one side and multi-colored the other, Izzy found a piece of jewelry. Around 11 church bells began to ring upon the hour and seemed to keep that up until 5. Laura said that first ringing of the bells somehow made the day.


Houseboats allowed

Much later in the evening we went to the 19th century museum to one side of the Cathedral for another excellent dinner. The restaurant was on the top floor and we could see the Cathedral to our right and across the square as we ate. Later we tried to walk around the lively square for our last night. Some of the stores closed all day for Sunday opened in the evening. There were street musicians, and yes homeless people (some with pet dogs).

Our time away had come to an end, and the next day getting up around 7 am (our time Milan) we had a 19 hour trip by cab, plane, cab, train and perhaps Laura’s husband Rob’s car awaiting us at 11 at night (his time DC).

I remembered trips Jim and I took within the US, up to Canada, or just to Maine, twice to Vermont, several times to New York State, and how we’d have driven there and drive home together. How content I’d be to go home. How eager then. And tonight I’ve found a poem to express this:

David Holbrook (1923-2011)

Coming Home from Abroad

The air is high and blue yet, as we drive
Northwards across High Marne: summer
Again, after the stormy cold of June.
Yet there’s a ghostliness a sadness in the wind:
I feel it first, in the little park at Enghein
Where the tall plane trees shivered in the breeze.

Oh, I am so content, sitting beside you,
Driving home over the Northern Plains of France,
The sun still strong, everything going well,
The wine and poulard good at lunch at Chalons;
Yet, in the sky, there’s this tall hustling ghost
Drawing a veil across the face of summer.

On Zeebrugge beach all next day, the sane
Unites me to Suffolk: the cold onshore breeze
Whispers of Cotman, and those severe scenes
Of grey half-muted tones, the figures bent
Against the elements: and so we sail
Steering irrevocably into the Felixstowe fog ….


John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) Carnavon 1800

Ellen

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Doing Milan


Izzy wearing Laura’s hat just as we entered the castle chapel


A small park, and ruin in a street near ours

Friends,

I’ve told of our trip, our first evening in Milan, three day jaunt out to Zurich, nearby Germany and France, and first general impressions of Italian culture.


When they do have trees on their blocks, they tend to place the same kind of tree in rows (as they do in France)

For the rest of our time away we stayed in Milan, either exploring the city and partaking of its pleasures (each night a different restaurant), or gazing at ice-skaters in the stadium. For me the enjoyable and engaging moments were in the city: all Tuesday, Wednesday morning and night, and all day Friday, early Saturday morning and Sunday morning until 1. Here I tell of Tuesday and Wednesday, early mornings and the neighborhood.


Izzy on the cathedral roof, wearing Laura’s hat


Walking into the castle entrance — a fountain is in front

The center of Milan (not just for visitors) exists between the large square called the Duomo, around which are the enormous cathedral, which everyone will tell you took 6 centuries to build, two beautiful glass covered shopping malls, two museums, with smaller institutional (cultural, gov’t, educational) buildings scattered all about. And blocks going this way and that. The opera house La Scala is right there. Two long wide parallel streets coming away from the back of the cathedral take you to the Sforza castle, an enormous building, which probably took a few centuries to settle into its present state. Between the castle and wide streets, there is what in the UK would be called a round-about where you can catch buses touring all Milan, and see different groups of people gathering. Nearby a movie theater and further along a playhouse (with a repertoire going on). Behind the castle is a large park that reminded me of Central Park in NYC (except not so big): picturesque, meant for leisured walking, with at least one lake, birds, a modern museum at one edge, near which there is an in-door and an out-door stage (for plays or concerts).


The wrapped up person is me contentedly gazing at water birds in a lake in the park — do not mistake how old I look for discontent

Further on, you come upon a beautiful state-of-the-art library for ordinary citizens’ use; wander a bit and you’re sure to come upon the usual ruins tucked away here and there, I believe a carousel, and bike paths.


Ruins

You leave the park area through a massive carved gate which tells you it commemorates a probably not very welcome visit from the armies of Napoleon III.

Tuesday we spent all morning in the castle in the morning, and much of the afternoon in the cathedral. The high point of the castle came swiftly: a sort of chapel in which we could view Michelangelo’s late Pieta.


Michelangelo’s late Pieta, at the Sforza castle

Michelangelo’s work just stands out as more sincere, realer than anything near it, anything we saw in that castle and most that we later saw in the modern museum. we viewed his last work. I sat by it for a while. All around the chapel were artefacts and plaques telling the story of its many adventures before it came to rest, let us hope safely for a long time to come, in the quiet room. It took a long time to walk all around the castle, up and down: clearly originally a fortress from which arrows and later guns could be aimed. Among the more interesting objects we saw were some beautiful later 19th and 20th century (recent) furniture, musical instruments from across the ages. We three enjoyed a good meal in a place where we could watch people go by and I listened to a street musician who played very well and whose apparent poverty touched my heart.


The cathedral roof from just one of many angles

Doing the cathedral is no trivial task. First you must avoid waiting for hours to get in through the front. A comparable tourist attraction is the Eiffel Tower, which is a many hour wait if you want to climb up. You can save the wasted hours and tedium by buying a more expensive ticket which allows you to take an elevator straight up to the first level of the roof.

Then you climb and climb and climb in and out of nooks, stairways, past gargoyles, statues, rows of battlements, seeing Milan become lower and seeing our farther, until you get to the very top.

I almost didn’t make it, and was saying “Non posso,” when someone helped me up the last stairway.


The cathedral highest roof

I saw one young woman with a baby in a carrier against her chest, holding a toddler’s hand. I would not have risked that child. You then climb back down, not all the way, and are led into a corridor where you take another elevator, and by some sleight of hand your ticket takes you into the cathedral by a side or back entrance, and voila.


What we saw as we came in


Walking about


The altar

In order to enjoy the place you have to forget that it was and is a seat of power, intended to impress you with its wealth. Every inch carved; many places sites of worship, shameless individual tombs, marble floors, magnificent windows. Perhaps one can reconcile oneself to it by reverse thinking: imagine where it bombed to the ground, then it’s a treasure of history, beauty, aspiration lost forever. Besides an ancient crypt, there is beneath the building an archaeological dig which has unearthed a previous basilica on the same site. Now we were in early Roman Italy. So this spot has been a community center for thousands of years. We regretted leaving.


The same Duomo square, another angle, at night when after resting in our own apartment we returned for dinner

Wednesday morning we learned how difficult it would be to leave Milan on Thursday to go out by train to the countryside: the biggest disappointment for me of this trip was that I did not get to visit another friend, the biographer of Veronica Gambara, Antonia Chimenti. She lives not far from Reggio Emilia, the area Gambara lived in. There is but one bus from where she lives to the train station, and another to Correggio. A city whose institutional buildings she said not all that much changed from the outside physically from the 16th century. People there still living a quieter traditional life. We would not have had time to get to Correggio, stay there, and get back to the train for Laura and I to return to Milan and she to her home. She sent pictures, we emailed but it seems what we needed was to have someone drive us. I translated all of Gambara’s poetry, wrote a short life myself.


Piazza del Monte, in Reggio Emilia, Correggio today

Laura and I also worried that Izzy would not be able to get all the tickets to go to the ice-skating events at once, and that she might need help from us on Thursday.

So on Wednesday instead of buying tickets at a local train station, we ended up in a local supermarket, and brought home some needed comforts for the flat (juice, milk, sugar, tea, bread, cheese, wine, cereal for the morning).


From our seats inside La Scala

But Wednesday night we had a rare treat: while Izzy remained at the ice-skating stadium, Laura and me hurried back to Milan for a quick dinner and to watch the Goldberg Variations as a ballet at La Scala. Astonishing. As we watched I realized I had seen part of this modern ballet in clips of videos on TV. A wikipedia article details the Bach music. As for Robbins’s choreography, the work consists of many ballet dancers, men and women dressed in the most minimal outfits, beginning dancing as a group, gradually emerging as varying couples and individuals, with no single individual emerging as a star or personality, and then back to the group dancing, with many moods, and much repetition. The last movements repeat the first and the dancers are all back where they began on the floor. By the end you feel you have experienced a life-cycle of humanity.

Here is a typical moment from almost an hour and one half

We were one night too late for Gluck’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Izzy almost said that had that opera been on, she’d have taken off from ice-skating.

Not all our adventures were outside or far away from the house our apartment was in. Laura had brought her laptop and we watched two (to me) unusual movies where food was the central subtext of stories and interviews; one traced the life story of am impoverished girl who became an austere nun who lives to cook simply; another was part of a series, each featuring a different type of food or dish which is central to a class-, race- or culture-laden experience, and that experience is ethnographically considered. Each morning Laura found herself breakfast in nearby bars. She and Izzy took walks around the neighborhood. We discovered two rare book stores, one much better than the other, but alas I owned a copy of the very book that tempted me: a volume of poetry by Elsa Morante. There was a convenient lunch place around the corner from where we were, a sort of snack place for the late afternoon. I read the books I had brought with me, and wrote to a friend; Izzy wrote in her diary (and kept very good records of the ice-skating she was seeing); and Laura kept up her paid work online and texted with her husband and a friend.


Another photo taken from our windows, a different angle includes a basilica like roof near us

Miss Drake

I can’t resist this one:

Cats sleep, anywhere,
Any table, any chair
Top of piano, window-ledge,
In the middle, on the edge,
Open drawer, empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard, with your frocks-
Anywhere! They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.

I accompanied this with a deeply appealing video but it has been removed by some omnipresent software machine protecting this particular YouTube.

Of course the poem’s assertion not true any. Any lap will not do. Cats will sleep anywhere once they feel safe, so if they have kind owners, such scenes Eleanor Farjeon conjures up come to mind. These are images of peace, security, quiet calm, and associated with cats help explain why we love our cats. Their behavior around us is comforting.

For example, here is one such image (though more tremulous, not quite so secure — note the wary open eyes) I photographed in my house since returning home:

Clarycat’s GreyMouse has turned up: a few days ago I saw Ian or Snuffycat carrying the toy about in his mouth. I put it on the floor after dusting off, and not much later found it as you see. Once again Clarycat continually removes Greymouse from the catbed to put it near where I am — my chair, by the threshold of the door to my workroom … Cats grow attached to objects. They attach objects to us, us to the objects we use. That’s why they sit in our shoes or among our socks.

Cats are symbolic animals — as are we. The end of the first seek home after much effort I re-found consignment thrift shop that Laura had taken Izzy and me to, Evolution Home not far from my house. I went to buy a few home improvements: a pretty lamp, finally a rug big enough to cover the new vestibule as you walk into my house, that was not super-costly, and came upon this:

There is much cross-stitching; along the outline of the cat, in his or her ears, to suggest where muscle lines go, the lines between feet, up and down his or her tail. The green is somewhat lighter than it appears in the photograph, and the ribbon is a duller red. It’s very feminine in its furls and furbelows. Both sniffed it all around and then, having accepted or approved, more or less ignored it. They cuddle around me. I’m glad for this way it will get less hair and no clawing.

Well, a friend on face-book wondered that someone would give “such a lovely thing away.” My immediate thought was how the world seems to be filled with people who don’t invest any or much emotional in things beyond personal interest, so we see that few value a book, a work of art for whatever beauty it has in and of itself — never mind the prestige of a name who made it, how it’s identified as part of an upper class taste. So this nameless pillow easily labelled kitsche would be discarded. But another friend suggested I should not assume the people didn’t care, and stories emerged of having to sell so much when you move from a larger place to a much much smaller, how you can end up discarding someone’s household who you are related to after the person dies, how some people discard things if they feel it looks “odd” (in a small apartment): “people give away gifts they just don’t care for or have room for … and people die and their stuff gets donated!”

Still to me ideas about decor — as how the objects fit together — don’t matter so much. To my mind that means you are worrying a bit too much about how the place looks to other eyes. I probably don’t have a decor in my house. Much was bought at different times and in different places.

Our things, our stuff, for some of us are central to our identity. Cherished as reminding us, as having been there when memories of the past formed.

This is from my Profile on Library Thing: “La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir). My life is a continuation of Jim and my play without him there. I see him in my dreams and experience him in my memories daily and nightly still. Five years gone by and maybe I seem to forget but in truth I do not ever forget his now absent presence. “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (from Carol Shields, Swann where a section of the book is about a man who is forced to sell his library).

It’s not silly to be attached to things, no sillier than cats.

This is one of the reasons I don’t want to move; it would be like erasing Jim and my past. I am not so much inventing a new past as adding on. I have added Milan to the other places in Italy where I went with Jim.

And I am now watching Season 3 of Outlander, using DVDs and listening to Davina Porter read aloud the book upon which the season is based: Gabaldon’s Voyager where however long the time going by seems, however varied and different her life, another person will not do:

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist

and the parallel in Lord John Grey’s story:

He said I would overcome it.
Come to terms with it.
In time.
Hal is generally right, but not always.
Some people, you grieve over forever.
(from the script, Episode 3, “All Debts Paid,” by Matthew B Roberts and Ronald Moore, from Gabaldon’s Voyager)

Miss Drake


Laura & me


Izzy & me
Photos taken the first afternoon in the Duomo square (Friday, 4/16) before the Cathedral

Friends,

Last Monday (4/26) we walked out of Union Station (a DC train and Metro center), pulling and carrying our bags after 19 hours of travel from Milan: around 9:30 am Milan time that morning we had gotten into an Uber cab for a 45 minute ride to the Milan airport; it was now 10:30 pm Washington DC time and we were stacking our stuff into Laura’s husband’s car for a half-hour ride home to Alexandria. It was an arduous trip and had been an arduous time away.

So vigorous (rigorous?) had we been that I had come down with a bad cold on Wednesday before (4/21) after a long day at the Assago Milanfiori Forum (where the ice-skating championship was held) and it had not abated one jot. By Thursday (4/29, a week and one day later) Laura was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and yesterday, Monday (4/2) Izzy was suffering from the same bad cold (painful chest, rough hot throat, constant sneezing, blowing of nose and so on) I still have as I write ths tonight. I will drive Izzy to the doctor tomorrow for antibiotic, cough medicine and (we hope) nose spray.

Next time we better take better care of our selves. There was a raw cold in the air throughout our stay. We just never felt the balmy (warm) air we often enjoy in this southern end of the mid-Atlantic temperature zone. We kept hoping and we would take one of our layers off, and say how warm and sunny it was. But go inside some heated place, and we knew better.


What I saw each morning and evening from my window in the flat — look how antique much below is

We also had not reckoned on steep stairs on long high stairways everywhere. I became convinced Milanese people have yet to be educated into the true wonders of elevators everywhere, with conveniently located escalators a ready alternative, such as we more or less expect in NYC and Washington DC. We had a comfortable enough flat, airy, high ceiling, enough beds, a TV, wi-fi, fridge, tables, chairs, decent bathroom, but getting there was arduous: it was on the third floor. Laura counted 68 steps, stone. One merciless stairway was 14 steep ones. The stairs at the Forum looked like nearly a foot high or inbetween. By Thursday (4/22), both my knees were in pain as I walked up the stairs one last time after dinner, and my legs ached so as I got into bed, I wanted never to take off the covers or move them again. Laura’s feet were covered in bandages. Izzy was so buoyed up by her long days at the Forum she probably didn’t notice, and anyway since she spent long hours, early in the morning to late at night 4 of the days, watching the ice-skating didn’t walk nearly as much.

But now you have had the worst of it.

I’ll tell the second worst and then we can get on with what was good, instructive, fun, beautiful: if you are determined to see the world, and where you want to go is so far, you must take a plane, I would even recommend Alitalia. The Milanese airport had enough chairs for people to sit in (by contrast, in the Icelandic airport nowadays people are treated like cattle). Granted Malpensa is not genuinely comfortably with cafeteria-like places with a variety of food to eat nearby such as I saw in Dublin’s airport. Food was limited to croissants and pizza, and not in convenient locations (Italians have not discovered the wonders of attending to convenience, nearby-ness). But there were no humiliating practices of extra scrutiny at the airport or conducted by the airline (nor at the Forum — there I was waved by) as in all US airports (and twice for me in Iceland, once in Brussels in US space). Alitalia seats were fantastically small but we were fed going and coming, two meals, plenty of water, soda and wine and tea and what they called coffee for free; movies for all (I saw a movie about Thurgood Marshall and Holofcener’s wonderful Friends with Money going). The Italians were not determined to punish us because oodles of money had not been extracted from us. We were not mistreated as one is on so many airlines and in US airports today (where you officially have no civil rights).

****************************

So the first night, Friday (4/16). I had messengered (is that the verb?) a long-time Internet friend, Luca Gandolfi, just before we left, and that very afternon he phoned me to say he was giving a lecture on Jane Austen and her contemporaries: minor women writers. Would I like to come? Would I? Laura’s google map enabled her to help me find the place among turning alleyways and streets near the Duomo. Laura and Izzy thought they’d be bored so went for an hour’s walk near this institute, which houses a club, lecture hall (Luca is teaching a class of about 6 women as a volunteer lecturer — which scene reminded me of the OLLIs), musical concert places. Imagine we were talking of Julia Kavanagh and her novels. Luca said he preferred women writers to men. So do I.

His wife, Grazia, was there and at the end of the lecture Laura and Izzy were back and we all retired to a local Italian restaurant he and his wife often go to. Lovely place, good pizza and wine, and lots of company. Much good talk. Laura began to take many photos. Unfortunately, she put them on instagram which only later did I realize would not let someone else download them as jpgs. Nor does face-book, where you can find a photo of Luca and me.

I did not realize as yet I was having my first experience of an ancient thriving city. As the days and nights wore on, I was impressed by how everyone is interdependent in Milan. Wealth does not insulate you. Most stores have some time they are closed and everyone seems to know, for example, which pharmacies are open when. So you get lines. Everyone in Milan seems to accept lining up. The antiques market we spent hours at on Sunday morning (4/25) winded up and down the long canal, moving left and right with little spurs on side streets: slowly all the spaces filled up, slowly more and more people; around 11 the hourly church bells heard across the city. and what a higgledy-piggedy of things. I came home with this ceramic cat:

In much bubblewrap. The great Milan cathedral on the one side of a great square and down a wide pair of streets, the Castle Sforza with its vast park — are central sites, the first is tourist-infested but the places all around, the shopping is for everyone. There is some system of cabs where you must phone first but when you do phone, everyone is served. Uber is disruptive of this. The repeated trolley cars and trams going every which way. Higgedy, piggedly modern shops with ancient ruins, old buildings with new made to fit them. The restaurants are places for groups of people and are used a great deal until late at night. You must make a reservation but many do this seems.

There are exclusive practices. La Scala was so dull. As opposed to the wonderful bars (more than 2 usually) in the bowels of UK theaters and on different levels in the US which makes for much interactive experience, there is just the show, hardly announced, it’s over and all spill out. Cabs picking people up. Except for places like La Scala the lesson taught is we must and do all of us live together interconnectedly. Egalitarianism is too much an abstract word for what days really spent across Milan makes one feel.

To return to our lecture and dinner out with a friend, we were very tired, having left DC that morning 19 hours before we got to Duomo square. He and his wife walked us home and on the way showed us where the Milanese gov’t is found. In front of it is a large statue of a hand with its third finger stuck up. (Fuck you is universal.) We said goodbye and hoped we would see each other on Sunday (we did, albeit briefly) at the antiques fair where he sometimes has a stall and hunts every other week for good buys in books (collector’s items). Izzy, Laura and I must have been going 27 hours before we went up those stairs, opened the difficult door, managed to arrange the space in the flat so we slept in separate areas with doors inbetween. Privacy to read or write on ipads. And collapsed.


A Swiss lake from the train as we wound through the mountains of the Southern alps (where there are palm trees!)

Up the next morning bright and early, Saturday (4/17) to get to the Milan railway station leading us out of the country by train to Zurich, Switzerland. Why? We had been invited by a very long-time Internet friend, Fran, to visit her in her house in a small town in Germany about an hour’s drive from Zurich. I have known her since around 1997 on listservs, via email letters, in group reads, as friends, and whom I once met for an afternoon in London for lunch and a visit to a museum (the Wallace collection).


The Black forest from the car

She showed us all around Zurich that afternoon: its church, its very expensive shops, its library; its canals, bridges.


Modern shopping area

Zurich
Zurich church with spire

Then into her area of Germany by Saturday evening and we saw some remarkable small towns. One was called Doherty, Germany. Original gates preserved, streets and squares from 14th century.


A community place

There was at one end community center where immigrants could come to be acclimated, where clubs and civic activities go on; near by the statue of local woman who did much to build the town center. Home again to Fran’s beautifully custom-made house and lovely meal of melted cheese and boiled potato and pickles and pineapple and other things (it has a name but I missed it). It was the next day we visited 4 countries: we drove through the Black Forest, into Frieberg, Germany; Colmar and a French village surrounded by vines; ended in wine-bar.


Three different French villages

We were inside several interesting and quite different churches — it matters whether it was Protestant and stripped bare or high church Catholic, both were built in this region (and ferocious wars fought).


Outside a cathedral


Inside


A clock tower

High points of what we saw: one small Catholic church; Chagall stained windows; little scenes — in one street with the 14th century floors and windows and roofs I remembered how hard it was in Austen’s Emma to get a pianoforte into Miss Bates’s flat. You dropped it by ropes from the roof. Birds nesting on a roof

It has been so heartening to see so much civic pride. This is what is not seen in the US anymore. Everything has been done that can be done to break the spirit and shrink the pocketbook of the average American, at the same time as prices for everything are jacked up, no money put into anything public (not into transportation, not into schools, community centers are closed down if not run by a religious organization). Wide stretches of impoverishment and despair as the blight spreads.

Nourishing meal again at home with Fran and Karl. Much talk. Sleep. Next morning light snow, so pretty in Dogern. We returned to Zurich with Fran and got back on the train. I was sorry to part. I used to have a friend who consoled me after we had visited Salisbury cathedral and a house said to be the one Trollope modeled the Warden’s house on (in Southern England), and it was time to part. He lived in Arizona and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. “You know you’ve had a good time when you feel you are parting too soon.” His name was Sigmund Eisner and he was an important presence on the Trollope list with Mike Powe, the first listowner, and me and a few others in the early years. He would describe the original illustrations to Trollope’s novels as we went through them. Sigmund died about 15 years ago. I hold him in my memory.

We were in Milan by 5 pm and had to find a place to eat in — without reservations. We managed it — with difficulty. It took much walking, several rejections, and then luck. After the dinner we returned to the flat and collapsed. We slept late the following Tuesday morning (3/20). When I next write, you’ll hear all about Tuesday exploring,eating, planning for the week, shopping for food in Milan.

Gentle reader, I hope you forgive me these records of the time away with my daughters and contact with a few friends. Most of my life is spent alone. I’m back to that now: I go out to the courses at OLLI so as to be with people. I read with others online so as to be part of an imagined good community. On any given night when so many people might be out with or visiting friends, I’ll be in my house reading, writing, watching movies, listening to music, my cats nearby. So I write these to extend the times and relive them again I’ve had been out in the world with others.

Ellen


Vivian and me, July 14, 2015, taken by Izzy: Alexandria’s yearly birthday party, a large park area by the Potomac, a concert and fireworks for all for free; we had a picnic

Dear friends and readers,

We are near setting off on our journey to Milan, Italy — Laura, Izzy, and I — where among other things (a visit to a friend who lives near Zurick which will necessitate a train-ride through the Alps and beautiful lakes; a visit to a fellow biographer of Veronica Gambara, in Reggio Emilia) we plan to attend the World Figure-Skating Championships, and find and look into what fashion museums and exhibits there are in this famous world city.

The last time the three of us were in Italy was 1994, 5 weeks with Jim in an apartment in Rome, from the which we took 4 trips: to Pompei, to Naples, to the island of Ischia for 3 days (where there is a beautiful beach and Vittoria Colonna lived for a number of years it’s thought), to Marino (where Colonna was born). We all three have many memories of that time. Upon coming into the flat, Laura, then 15, declared Italy had not invented air conditioning yet. Izzy said to another child at the beach: “mi chiamo Isabella.” A high point for Jim and I was a fresco we saw in a fourteenth century church one morning. We all wandered in the heat over the forum, the Colosseum, saw an opera amid some ancient Roman stones.

And early yesterday evening my good friend, Vivian, died: she went quickly, three weeks after the cancer resumed. I wrote about my visit to her in a hospice place in my last blog. I have learned as she died she was quiet (perhaps sleeping?), appeared to be at peace, kept out of consciousness of pain by drugs. Did she go gentle into that good night? I was not there and in her two earlier phone calls she expressed anguish.

What is it Macbeth says upon being told: “She should have dy’de hereafter;/There would have been time for such a word.” I will not be here when the memorial service is held. I grieve for her and will miss her.

Every moment I’ve been able to I’ve been either reading, writing, thinking for the courses I’m teaching (The Later Virginia Woolf; Sexual & Marital Conflicts in Anthony Trollope: HKHWR), or taking (The Brontes, a book club whose first item is Atwood’s The Blind Assassin), or still at that paper (Woolf & Johnson, biographers), or online with friends, blogging, nurturing (so so speak) my 3 groups.io (the book, the extraordinary American Senator) — not to omit getting through all things needful for the trip. Some of them arduous, time-consuming, confusing — like airline reservations supposed to be on a website which are not there. Not to worry: Laura made a phone call in her firm determined voice and our tickets & we now exist again. “Able to” is the operative phrase: many a later afternoon or evening I give out and succumb to a movie that can keep me up; this weekend I reached the fifth episode of Alias Grace (another Atwood adapted).

I’m more awake tonight than I have been for several, enough to tell of how this past Wednesday I went to the last of the four lectures on Impressionism outside France: so to my last blog on Russia, the low countries and Italy, I add the UK, and I was not surprised it was the most interesting because he had the most paintings to show. Gariff went on for nearly 3 hours. This time I had heard of most of the painters, but had not realized that the work of many of the painters I had “placed” in separate schools when regarded as impressionist made a different kind of sense. Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), who I’ve written about as an Edwardian woman painter in the Newlyn School, links to Laura Knight (1877-1970), who I wrote more briefly about as a Cornish artist. Victorian artists familiar to me as recording the abysmal poverty of the countryside and cities, i.e., George Clausen (1852-1944) belong here; and some I’d never heard of, Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914):


The Icknield Way (1912) — a road in Surrey since Roman times

Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, and his fostering of post-impressionism, his pictures belong here too. A Scottish woman artist, Ethel Walker (1861-1951) now fits. She painted Vanessa Bell, the first image I’ve seen that enables me to begin to understand why Bell was so liked:


Vanessa 1937

Two American artists this time were very influential: Whistler and John Singer Sargent. I learned that the next time I go to London I should go the London Imperial War Museum. Its name (because of the militarist connotations) is misleading: it is a leading place for artist painting during WW1, which most of these people did. Sidney Starr (1857-1925) has such a poor wikipedia page, I have to link in a sales one (he was an important art critic):


Starr’s City Atlas (1889-90) was part of an exhibit or talk about how difficult to get to know London

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) ended up an important teacher (teachers matter), he was influenced by Monet and this is his most famous painting.


Children Paddling, Walberswick (1894)


But perhaps this curiosity, of an over-dressed woman with a cat called Hydrangeas is more characteristic

Vivian’s favorite painter was Monet, and during the visit her brother and sister took her on to Paris this summer they took her to Giverny. She also had a cat called Sammy (Samantha) for seven years.

Izzy and I almost didn’t go to a performance by Catherine Flye accompanied by Michael Tolaydo as narrator at the Metrostage of a revue of the life and songs of Joan Grenfell. We had tickets for Saturday, and were so preoccupied we forgot to go. The woman who basically runs the Metrostage single-handed phoned us 5 minutes before, and offered to let us come Sunday instead. This remarkable pair of actors presented a later afternoon of witty cheer with an undercurrent of desperate acceptance; there were some twee moments but also direct hits at frustrated longing hearts. My favorite was a piece called “The Telephone Call” (a woman spending her life caring for an aged parent). A couple very funny: one of a woman on her first airplane flight when people were still treated with respect and given comfort as human beings. The pianist played wonderful older melodies I recognized, one famous from WW2, The Warsaw Concert by Richard Addinsell (who wrote most of the music performed).


Michael Tolaydo and Catherine Flye, 2002 (Gardener McKay’s Sea Marks)

We had both wanted to go because we both remembered the moving play Sea Marks, with Tolaydo and Flye, which we saw with Jim in 2002 at this Metrostage. I’ve had that black-and-white newsprint picture on the wall of my study all this time

I return to Vivian. One of the class members of my Later Woolf came for the first class and for the rest I’ll keep him in the email list as I send comments and readings out, and lectures too. He can’t come regularly as he’s taking chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. Vivian was killed by lymphoma (as was Jenny Diski) combined with brain cancer. She was no reader: odd for a best friend for me, but there are other things that matter. She was a kind person, sensitive. Charitable and forbearing at others’ flaws. She shared my politics, my lack of religion. While she didn’t read books, she always seemed to know the latest US political development; she’d take the progressive side most of the time, and post about it on face-book. We went to Bernie Sanders rallies. We also took wandering walks in Old Town. We’d go to some movies together (we didn’t quite have the same tastes): I went twice to Kedi (the movie set in Isanbul about feral cats and their caretakers in that city) so she could see it, and she cried. She stayed up (she had problems sleeping so would often fall asleep at movies) for and was moved by Still Alice.

Here is one of the poems Flye recited, movingly:

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on …

That doesn’t mean one forgets however little one is given chance to mourn with any ceremony. I feel bad because Vivian had emailed the suggestion when she still thought she would live (some 5 weeks ago) that she and I go to the Grand Canyon this coming May. I had balked at the idea of the plane and asked if there was a way to go by train. No. It would take some absurd amount of time. A drive was ridiculous. I was adjusting to the idea of taking yet another plane (how I hate them all) and was beginning to propose we look into a package tour. I told her I imagined us on donkeys going up and down vast cliffs, which probably showed how little I know about modern tourism in the Grand Canyon. It was still in the realm of half-joke when she phoned to say the cancer had returned and she was in hospital. We had some good walks in Old Towne this summer: a ghost tour, one night along the water eating ice-cream listening to street musicians in the mild crowd.

We all come from the past … life is a braided cord of humanity stretching from time long gone … it cannot be defined by a single journey from diaper to shroud … (Russell Baker, Growing Up, an autobiography I read with freshman composition students decades ago, which I remembered tonight)

Ellen


Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard was an important painting for Impressionist outside France, though Monet’s work was the most strongly influential

Dear friends,

Today was a strange day. I woke to hear a wuthering wind — appropriately enough I’ve begun to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (in a fine thorough Norton — editions matter), and while I had a little trouble getting into it again, with the help of one of the BBC’s marvelous 1970s serials, I’ve caught its peculiar visionary atmosphere now. Sometimes the wind became a kind of ceaseless roar as if one were in a hurricane with no storm in the center. At the same time all day and night freezing cold as if it were winter out there. Meanwhile the sun shines. Everything in the DC and Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland area has shut down, wide electrical outages (we have been lucky thus far and not lost power), because of the dangerous winds (so it’s said). Climate break-up. We have not begun to imagine the phenomena that lie ahead …


1977-78 BBC Wuthering Heights: the moment of Lockwood’s nightmare where a hand from outside the window grasps his

It takes me a very long time to do something I’ve never done before. I’m not much for change. So I wondered if I would ever sit in that front room I’d wanted for so long. About a week and a half ago, I suddenly began. I tried the experiment of sitting in it after I’ve had my morning bout of posting with friends and on what business I have. I’ve now spent successive afternoons there, quietly reading, away from distractions in cyberspace, with no TV nearby, no radio, no phone in sight. I’ve begun to look forward to my afternoons and (sometimes) early evenings there. I love it. The cats moved in with me (so to speak). They now have a cat bed there, water bowl, dish for treats. They prefer the soft chair: Snuffy turns himself into a doughnut sitting just atop my shoulders and Clary settles down on the thick rug by the oil-filled electric radiator. A drawback is I cannot take notes on what I read because my handwriting has fallen apart and I have not yet taught myself to use the “note” program on my ipad but perhaps it’s all the more rejuvenating for that. I write in the margins and on the blank back and front pages of my book. I began with two afternoons of Poldark reading.

I remembered Jim laughing at me when we got our first dishwasher. It came with the apartment in 1981. For a while I kept cardboard boxes in it as I felt I didn’t know how to use it. Quipped he: “give the poor bathtubs and they’ll keep coal in them.” That was a mocking saying the Tories used in the 1940s to try to stop Atlee’s gov’t from giving subsidies to those who could get up half the amount for renovating their bathrooms. Due to Atlee’s gov’t’s passage of that bill, when Jim was 8 or so, his parents had an extension built on their house with a bathtub and toilet inside the house (in an unheated room) for the first time.


One of the singers at the Folger: we took home all the lyrics

I did have two marvelous experiences last weekend. On Saturday afternoon with a friend I went to Folger to hear and see their spring concert, Il lauro verde. It was quieter than most of their concerts recently, less “flash:” nothing on screen at the back, a more limited set of instruments (though the recorder and tambourine and harpsichord were much in evidence), no “star:” there was a play within a play, and dramatized duets; two singers from Italy, and all was sung in Italian. Nothing amplified falsely, nothing computerized, people playing their instruments. I feared my friend would be bored and was so relieved when she was not. She seemed to love the experience. I said it was like Easter or spring celebrated through themes from nature. By the end my heart was easier than it had been all week, it did my heart and soul good to be there in this non-commercialized quiet place where people played musical instruments with little fanfare, and they sang beautifully to deeply humane touching very delicate songs. Some witty, some erotic, some religious, some this ironic menace. No one a star. When I’m at the Folger and they return to the Renaissance this way I remember why I wanted to major in this material so long ago. Not that the world of early modern Europe was not as treacherous and crazed in many ways as ours.


Roz White in a performance some years back ….

On Sunday Izzy and I returned to the Metrostage where we had participated in a Christmas pantomime and music hall on Boxing Day. The music could not have been more different: it was a one-woman performance, Roz White, an African-American singer doing “A revolutionary cabaret.” A man at the piano, and some minimal props and clothes (hat, shawl). Years ago Jim and I saw a show in a restaurant in Greenwich village with an 80+ year old Alberta Hunter. She was just marvelous. Well Roz White did a couple of hers, two by Nina Simone, Roberta Flack — I had album by her even more years ago that I used to listen to again and again. Each time she imitated the particular singer mildly. They were protest and angry songs, but also songs of hope, witty, wistful, very contemporary. She uplifted and cheered us, exhilarating at moments. I wished it had gone on for longer.


Anna Boch (1848-1936): Dutch impressionist, Cottage in Flanders

This Wednesday I went to the third four (what are turning out to be) informative, insightful lectures (sharp intelligent comments on the painters, paintings) on Wednesday evenings on “Impressionism outside France” by David Gariff, a curator at the National Gallery. Instead of ending early (as is alas typical) he’d go on to 9:30 and later. Who knew there were so many beautiful, interesting varied Impressionist pictures across western Europe. I now realize most people see only a few of what impressionist pictures there are, the same ones over and over by the same artists. We are French centered, and because Americans see some American impressionism, and because we speak English, a few English. This seems to add up to less than fifth of the beauty and interest available. It’s that museums won’t buy these other paintings from other countries (on the basis no one is interested — but then how can they be if they’ve never heard of them).


Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), Russian impressionist: Early Snow

To characterize each country (and say at least ten painters) in a sentence or so is so inadequate but with my stenography so bad nowadays, and his pace so quick (to include a lot), I can do no more. Basically the Russians one are apolitical (no wonder, under such terrorizing regimes) and paint heart-stoppingly beautiful landscapes, often around great houses; the Italians in reverse are highly political (regional, it’s the risorgimento period) and we see realistic urbane scenes where the interest is a real building, real looking people, the culture. Belgium, the Netherlands seemed more contemporary, continually moving beyond impressionism to break-ups of naturalism. Next week impressionism in the UK. He said there is no single book.


It’s been adapted for the stage

My life goes into a different rhythm starting next week. It will be the OLLI at AU Mondays for teaching (leading a study group) on “The Later Virginia Woolf” and Tuesdays attending (a study group) on “The Best of Bronte.” 8 sessions each. My afternoons in my room I’ve reread Woolf’s Flush, Three Guineas, and am now into Between the Acts. The first a brilliant modernist, genuine biography of a dog; the second as necessary to read as Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce. I hope I can lead people to like and understand them. I get so aroused inwardly I begin to think next fall I’ll try a course I’ll call The Enlightenment: at risk!, and assign Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Johnson’s Life of Savage, and because no woman at the time dared, fast forward to Sontag’s Volcano Lover with brief online texts like Kant’s defining the term “what is the Enlightenment?” Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. A friend has added to the DVD collection of Bronte movies I gathered when I reviewed a book on “Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies,” two of whose essays were on the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights films. A veritable feast of watching I’ve already begun.

Late March I’ll add the OLLI at Mason 8 Wednesdays for teaching Trollope’sHe Knew He Was Right and ‘Journey to Panama'” followed by 8 sessions on how WW1 transformed the world (a mix of unusual films and lectures) and 4 Thursdays the career and songs by Leonard Cohen (music not “to commit suicide by”); I’ve joined their Reston book club (3 sessions far apart) & first up Atwood’s Blind Assassins (I’ve longed to read since someone told me it’s about an older woman — like Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises), second a favorite, Swift’s Last Orders, and an Americanization of the Booker Prize, Saunders’ Lincoln at the Bardo.

The real news — affecting my life daily — is with the help of a digital expert, I rescued my 3 yahoo lists and they are now at groups.io, and our early verdict is we love our new home. It’s so easy to find postings, photos, links. Everything so clear and works well. I may be loathe to endure change, but when I have to — as Verizon is slowly getting rid of its yahoo parts that don’t yield huge profits — I do. Over the three weeks it has sometimes been stressful, but the (bearded) man who helped me was wonderful. He wrote out instructions step-by-step, literally, only occasionally leaving a step out. I should add (as it’s relevant) in the last 2 weeks the Future Learn course in autism suddenly switched gears and began describing the characteristics of autism thoroughly, and although the woman running never ceased asking her inane, indeed neurotypical question (for she didn’t mean it literally, it was a ploy), by the end she was asking what are the drawbacks for “coming out,” what the advantages (as a group these outweigh silence and erasure, for only then can you hope for help and understanding). I did tell Shal (that is his name) that I think I have Aspergers Syndrome traits, and it was then, he told me his son is Autistic Level 2, and he began to help me in earnest.


This soft cat toy is something like the one I left with Vivian

Not all good. In most lives some Acid rain must fall. I saw my friend, Vivian, for the last time. I drove to Bethesda, Maryland, found the assisted living facility her sibling have placed her in where she is having excellent kind (it seems) hospice care. Her life is over, drugged, controlled by her sister, I can’t reach her where she used to live as the sister as deliberately put herself in the way (telling me what I could and could not say before I was allowed in) and I could see when Vivian began to talk of her “issues” (her cover-up term for Aspergers), the sister grew impatient and changed the subject. I left by Vivian’s side a small soft toy cat, grey, with blue eyes, I’ve had for ever so long. A token to remember me by. I admit I hope to retrieve it when I go to the funeral. For Izzy’s sake. I will send Vivian a Jacqui Lawson card tonight — with her sister’s help she can read the Internet still.

[I will ask Laura for a photo of the apartment she has rented for us — it’s on her email bnb site where she’s registered]

My, Izzy and Laura’s preparations for our Milan trip included a trip to a Apple store, a stressful place where everything is arranged to extort from the customer absurdly high rental costs monthly by leasing phones built to last less than 2 years. We went into an Evolution Home store which from the outside looked like some once bombed rotting building, but inside was filled with exquisitely chosen and set up second hand furniture at reasonable prices (sold by whom? I wondered, after how many forced moves). On Route 1 one can see the blight of spreading poverty in the appearance and growth of trailer camp sites. Some huge percentage of people in he US between ages 55 and 65 are now near homeless or homeless and soon will have no health care whatsoever unless they work 80 hours a month … But Izzy, Laura and I have an invitation to visit a long-time Net friend (who I met once in London, so many years ago, 1990s), who lives just outside Zurich. We’ll see the Alps from a train and also beautiful lakes.


Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1807): Italian impressionist: La Fiumana

A pocket of hope: this is the first year since Jim’s death when I was not fleeced outrageously by someone claiming to do my tax returns — an expensive accountant hardly looked at mine individually (went there twice), a man in an H&R block store in a strip mall did not know what he was doing (there is a federal law forbidding states to require minimum education before you can put out a sign). And on top of that had to pay several hundred dollars in taxes! But two sessions of a truly expert AARP man at the OLLI at Mason where he taught us to understand the forms and then told us about AARP sites all over the US where people will make out your forms for free.


Sherwood Regional Library — it was a bit of a trip, but my garmin & mapquest got us there

So on two different nights around 5:10 Izzy and I set off for a library where we participated in filling out tax forms. The two women helping me paid attention, and I came back with papers showing my real estate and personal property taxes (deducible from the federal tax) and now I am getting a few hundred dollars back. The place is infected with the fundamental distrust across US society and only a social security card or number on a car would get you in; turned out this number is no where reprinted anywhere on any document but said card. At the same time not friendly people, not like British people in their daily impersonal relationships where there is a feeling of camaradarie. I told my name to both the women who did my taxes with me after we had finished and shook her hand and only then did we make eye contact: both turned, looked at me and smiled.

I have not been in a place like this since I went to Manhattan Eye Ear Nose and Throat (a hospital in Manhattan) regularly in the later 1970s. All services for free. The personnel could be blunt. I’d fill out the “need” form and someone would ask, “How do you live?” “With difficulty,” I’d reply. When Laura was born, we’d get money back from the tax system through Earned Income Tax Credit. (Jim did the tax returns all our lives). Like the people at OLLI all older people doing good deeds — one man became interested in a black young woman with a child who had been evicted some time this year (it’s recorded on tax forms!) and before you know it three people were attempting to navigate that horrible medical marketplace to help her find insurance that was better for her. Obama’s ACA stopped lousy insurance from being sold; it’s back. I know Virginia is one of the states that set up offices to help people. Another young white man was helped with something else not directly related to tax. A plain unadorned room in the back of a large public library.

So my fifth March without Jim begins:


(A Judith) Kliban cat

Miss Drake


An old woman reading — a magnificent painting done in the 17th century Netherlands

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

Friends,

Accept what you are.
Do what you can.
Be glad you can do that.

These are lines I tell myself or some version of them. They help me carry on. I then try to follow them doing what’s in front of me to do that day, and doing what I tell myself I want to and shall do for the sake of events coming up that I can participate in. Participate to the best of my ability and if I can’t do what others do, live with it.

Very sad today because dear close friend for the past 4 years now has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It has been so hard to live since Jim is gone. One can say live in and on yourself but to do this in my state of several dysfunctions takes strength, courage, cheer and yes friendships.

This one is hard. I have a new understanding — much better, much more accurate — of friendship, its limits as well as its gifts, can picture how many people live on themselves and with others. It’s probably salutary for me to see better, more clearly (like Lear is told to) but honestly I would have preferred to go to the end of my chapter without seeing. In reason or logically it should make me stronger to be able to see clearly, but like when I’ve done something that’s hard for me to do and then people tell me, each time it will get easier (say traveling or some technology), and the act(s) don’t at all get easier (but come accompanied by the same anxiety, intense reluctance, and when they are over the same intense relief). Perhaps seeing makes things more doable because I realize how others are what’s called striving or struggling to do them too. (Of course for some these acts come easy; such people are not admirable, just lucky in their genes, or circumstances.) I’m not sure seeing where others experience similar emotions and where they don’t, makes things more doable.


Roger Fry, self-portrait

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” — Virginia Woolf

I’ve been immersed in one of Virginia Woolf’s it seems to me now hundreds of masterpieces of writing, this one a full length biography of Roger Fry. She grasps that powerful turning points for him later in life were when he faced defeat, recognized what he could do and then flourished within his limitations so as to live out his extraordinary gifts. He was tremendously lucky in who he was born to: he automatically went to the best schools, had connections to get to places where he could meet minds equivalent in finest and insight to his own, and he was born sociable: could make and knew how to sustain friendships. I am so moved by his life style: he was partly homosexual and bisexual and sustained deep relationships among men and women that were unconventional. His rooms were beautifully decorated by true art (not what would fetch money or give prestige necessarily at all) and filled every where what he was doing: books, papers, easels, paint, his food on plates because he was too taken up with what he was doing to keep up with tidyness. A man after my own heart. Fry’s art was one she understood, his principles those she lived by as Fry had understood hers: she reveled in his life, wished she could have lived it.

I’m comparing Woolf’s book to Samuel Johnson’s life of Richard Savage, considered his masterpiece in biography. What a contrast from the point of view of failure. Savage a self-deluded wildly behaved “genius,” born with no advantages but that of “intellectual greatness” (Johnson’s phrase) whose “eminence” because of such gifts just made him a better known instance of of how such things contribute very little to worldly success, happiness, or fulfillment — all of which Roger Fry knew, partly the result of his having been born with the extrinsic advantages Savage lacked and didn’t know how to or in his world could not acquire. It was not just bad luck as Savage also had some innate awful traits of vanity, luxury, scorn for those beneath him (as he saw this), and he could not control ill-advised responses, like anger (when he desperately needed to). His sexuality is not clear; at the time (not in Johnson’s biography) he was linked to at least two women, one Eliza Haywood supposedly had a child by him, but I wonder if he was homosexual or bisexual. It is as extraordinary a story as Fry’s is, only far more flagrantly breaking all taboos. The man may have been in effect homeless, living on the streets, in taverns, for some 28 years; at 46 he died in debtor’s prison, surely from exhaustion and the terrible wear and tear of his body and mind as much as anything else. Johnson was 35 at the time he wrote the biography, living on little bits of money, and saw a possible fate for himself in Savage.

“They are surely happy,” said the prince, “who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.” — Samuel Johnson, Rasselas


Van Gogh, A Field with Poppies — Woolf begins and ends her biography of Fry with his utterances about poppies

I’ve been following a Future Learn course on autism for three weeks now and have some thoughts about it. It’s done by a group of people running a center in a British university (Kent) for people on the autism spectrum. They have a variety of degrees and positions that legitimate them — and give them salaries. What are they doing with this precious four weeks in public on the Internet they are given?

They persist in asking, Does Autism Exist? & seem to doubt there is such a condition. They know better. They present evidence it does, two of them are clearly autistic themselves — or Aspergers Syndrome as the high end of the condition, where people come closest to non-disabled functioning and are highly intellingent in reasoning, writing, reading, understanding, used to be distinguished. Logically from what they show, if it’s amorphous, cannot be confirmed by scientific method that is unassailable, and manifests differently, there is a (laughably) strong base of similarity. Like cancer, the basic disability or problem comes in different manifestations, but we don’t doubt cancer exists.

I’ve decided that they mean to counter intense hostility by the neurotypical world: my experience is the hostility only goes away when a NT has an autistic person in their family or as a friend. Even then, not all the time, and many inside a family especially (where they cannot get rid of the tie) want to doubt the person is autistic. How painful this is. How painful this Future Learn course. It means such people don’t want to recognize the autistic and refuse to acknowledge they exist. I know this is what people without disabling conditions do with disabilities (I’ve reviewed & read enough books on disability to know this), and with this one mental they can deny even more readily.

So I don’t exist. One of my daughters doesn’t exist. Aspergers Syndrome which describes the part of the spectrum she is on and I’m almost does not exist in the book any more.

The Future Learn course is doing little good to the Aspergers or autistic person: by spending so much time doubting autism, the speakers don’t have the time to go into individual characteristics. Or they don’t want to — two of the three weeks have been unusually short (less videos, less essays than most such courses). I suspect they fear evoking ridicule and hostility. Open objections that could become obnoxious. So they don’t talk about specifics autistic people can’t do, only try to assert through photos how autistic people are social, are made happy by having friends, just don’t know the unwritten codes and social behavior that gains and sustains them.

What they have been willing to discuss (again in general terms) are depression & anxiety as “co-existing morbid conditions.” The language chosen is, shall we say, unfortunate?

Then they show reluctance to say these two linked conditions result from autism & are a response to the way society treats the autistic and how society is organized along neurotypical lines w/neurotypical expectations. So I must spend 4 traumatic hours trying to upgrade a computer with someone’s help so I can even have an app for a power-point presentation; today four more for installation; and now my older daughter may help me learn to use this software and I know that still I might not be able to do such a thing in public. Too nervous. Or I can’t travel alone without it becoming an intense ordeal because I know I get lost. These are crippling conditions and it’s natural to be depressed, would be unlikely not to produce anxiety.

I’m sure they recognize the worst problems of the disabled are mostly the result of the way the larger society refuses to recognize and help them. Books on disability begin with this insight (see, for example, Fictions of Affliction). Deaf people have gone furthest with this, declaring themselves a simply culture, which is not quite so. Not to hear is to live in danger. The alphabet is based on oral sounds

You are given room to comment as “a learner” in these Future Learn courses and I watch people dialoging or commenting alongside one another. So I told the people who invented and have enacted this course they are not helping the autistic by this approach and they are not countering the hostility of the non-autistic by their innocent films (showing autistic and non-autistic babies interacting and then supposedly disproving stereotypical pictures of how autistic people look).

It’s them being timid and is, unfortunately, matched by timidity I’ve seen in other of these Future Learn courses: say on colonialism. The people there were afraid to offend (I now realize from having taught two courses in the Booker Prize book formula and discovered that people drop the course because they identify with the settler colonialists, the imperialists) and spoke in jargon-filled words (like marbles in their mouths) lest they be understood too readily.


Katy Murphy as Jenny Wren from the 1998 Our Mutual Friend by Sandy Welch

From Charlotte Mew’s The Changeling

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything …

I’ve finally taken to sitting in my sunroom, only this week through the windows I saw much rain. It is very quiet there, no TV, no computer, no radio, just a silent clock. A comfortable chair, tables, lamps, some of my books, two smaller bookcases of DVDs, a thick cream-beige rug, the walls a soft light green. I read more this way. Settle down to my book friends.


My room of my own in the evening: during the day imagine Snuffy cat sitting along the top and Clarycat by the radiator, me in the chair …

I know some peace here,
for peace comes dropping slow

Miss Drake