Archive for May 18th, 2014


Dear friends and readers,

In the poetry section of the Women’s Review of Books for this two months, an article by Robin Becker on a recently published book of poetry by Kathleen Aguerro caught my eyes. It’s called After that, and in the course of the discussion Becker quotes a powerful poem, “Larkspur Lane” and it is for this poem (see below) I write the posting. But first some context. Becker opens with this stanza from Aguerro’s book:

I bow my head to the hard work of hope
I let it place its dull and heavy hand upon my neck
I submit to its dour blessing,
I give up. I begin
its thankless, necessary pilgrimage.

At first I was much taken by this equation, but as the reviewer carried on I did not see what the poet had said to show that there is work involved in hope or what kind of word this would be. Why bow your head to anything? Perhaps it’s just a slick sounding phrase I thought to myself, but then Becker quoted some of the poetry and I could see the book is about her mother’s decline into dementia, also the “fearful loneliness and strangeness that all family members must endure” (Becker’s words) when one member leaves a shared reality for her solitude. Aguerro also writes of a friend’s “descent into mental illness and her eventual suicide.” Dichotomies include a world carrying on regardless (remember Auden’s famous suffering “takes places/while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” — one problem with the book may be (though perhaps it’s a function of the reviewer’s choices) it does not take into account the relative who couldn’t give a damn or makes things much worse and the odd truth sometimes strangers, or unexpected friends do more for you than you could have expected.

The second half of her book presents poems connected to Nancy Drew — a subject we’ve had here before (poems, one by Aguerro, reading, how she fits into girls’ books, Bobbie Ann Mason on) — Investigations, the Mystery of a Girl Sleuth and one of them connects to the theme of how old people are used very badly in our society indeed. This is the one I referred to above. One of the Nancy Drew books is called the Password to Larkspur Lane:

Larkspur Lane

A grey-haired woman in a wheelchair is locked up
on the grounds of a mansion against her will,
guarded by an imposter nurse until she’s signed over her property
to the crooked lawyer running towards her, arm raised, face contorted,
shouting, Get away from that fence!

The elderly woman, finger to lips, catches Nancy’s eye and points at him
as if our younger selves could free our older selves through stealth.
When I was aney’s age, I couldn’t imagine my efficient mother
in a nursing home, looking for a way out, whispering
that I should leave while I could or telling me I’d burn in hell
for what I’d done to her. She was clever.
She found the wooden gate where they put the garbage out.
She pulled it, but it was locked. She waited, but no one came,
so she joined the other walkers, round and round the halls,
out one door, in the other, shuffling in untied shoes or stepping briskly,
imaginary briefcases or shopping bags under their arms as they made their way
through crowded streets from the train station to the office. They tried
all the passwords: Call me a cab. I have to pick up the kids.
Is it time to leave for the ballgame yet?
One man nearly broke out,
but, ever polite, he paused to let me pass and the nurse came running,
pulling him back, scolding, Get away from the door.
Don’t worry, the receptionist told me. If they get as far as the lobby,
an alarm rings. To sneak in and out of Larkspur Lane, you’d have to be
a sleuth, but now I’ve got the password. My mother
gave it to me. Lean close. I’ll tell you what it is. ~

Old age and dying and how it’s experienced in the US. I went to a lecture this week by Roz Chast of New Yorker fame – at Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington, which connects to Aguerro’s poem.


She was promoting her graphic novel, Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? From all she said I could see she has written a moving account about the last years of the lives of her aging parents and their deaths, including time spent in “Assisted Living.” I didn’t enjoy the lecture particularly because she is a crowd pleaser and sandwiched her talk into showing favorite cartoons — the crowd appeared to be made up of fans. I had agreed to go because I remembered Jim once said he liked Roz Chast in a way that suggested we should feel for her, that there is something we need to compassionate and is sweet about her cartoons. I’ve always thought her drawings lousy, nothing alluring about them at all, but I know that sometimes her words combine with her pictures to make acutely critical points about social life. Well this time I thought she was availing herself of the usual NY Jewish-borough stuff, joky-morbid humor which doesn’t amuse me — I know the realities of New York Jewish culture too well. Lecturers do have a problem when they are presenting to a mass audience: they need to protect themselves, and I’ve found they either distance themselves (Colm Toibin) or they resort to a gig (a la Polonius) and Chast preferred not to distance herself so she used the latter techniques.

I was also there trying to meet a friend. The woes of public transportation. As I came down the two blocks to where the bus stop is where I live I missed my bus (the man was a minute or so early and he whizzed by me — would not Stop! — what a mean man), then I found I could not operate the cell phone so could not call her to wait for me. I had to wait a half hour in the heat. I didn’t go back to the house because I kept hoping a bus would come and I’m helpless with the Uber cab except when I’m at an address I know. An express went by — paid for and just for military people. My friend should have waited but did not: when I showed up I thought she had gone on to where we were to meet in DC so I did and found her not there. Instead she had just gone home! After the lecture I had a long trek home. I had gotten there only on time because I did take a second bus at the Metro stop at Northwest Washington – a kind young woman helped me find which one and was getting off at my stop. So I knew where to wait to get a bus the other way. I did not take a bus from the Metro in Virginia, but took a cab and I have not taken any buses since. All Uber cabs. It was 4 and 1/2 hour trip altogether and by the time I got home I had a headache and my stomach a piercing ache so bad because I had not eaten for hours. Maybe this is why Roz Chast failed to amuse me; her book had also been used to suggest to me that I had a problem driving because in it Chast says she disliked going to Brooklyn and hardly ever visited her aging parents because the car drive across the bridge was hellish.

Last week I was flooded out with the intense rains trying to get to Politics and Prose to hear Ralph Nader (his book comically in my view called Unstoppable — the masses.) Waiting for the bus in Northwest and trying to walk I was soaked from my feet and shoes up to my thighs so turned around and went home. This time my friend appeared to be going on without me, but when I got back to the Metro and a bus was there and I got on it, there she was. She had turned round too. I am fast losing my enthusiasm for this bookstore so far away from me.

I watched Margarethe von Trotta’s powerful and intelligent film, Hannah Arendt twice this week and now written a blog, and on my Women Writers through the Ages list have had recommended to me what are her most important publications. I was stuck by her Origins of Totalitarianism where she argued among the first things the totalitarian state does is isolate people, leave them in loneliness. Republicans in Tennessee have made it against the law to pass any more funding for public transportation. There is no hope for a high speed railway of the middle-Europe type anywhere

I had my last meeting with the grief support group and my last ride home with Drew. Perhaps it’s for the best that I am unlikely to see any of these people again. There seems to be this impulse among many people that the last time for whatever will be upbeat. I’ve found 3 times now with psychologists and psychiatrists, that the meeting thought to be last the person suddenly turns round to me and behaves in ways that deny the apparent bonding I felt and is urging on me some conventional notion of sociability: here I had to listen to the man who has come to dominate the sessions telling us how it was all God’s plan.

I remembered how Jim long ago said to Caroline when she came home from going out with someone to whom she had said she was an atheist, that he would forgive her, or accept that: Jim wanted to know why it was not we who would say we would tolerate his nonsense. It is hideous thought that my beloved husband experienced horrific pain, died in a terrible ordeal young as part of anyone’s plan. People are like squirrels: we may set up rituals to delude and comfort one another with dignified commemorations of all we valued of the beloved person, but beyond that it’s fantasy. It’s important to stay with reality for if you do not recognize an evil (the cancer epidemic, the way the medical establishment doles out its so-called care), how can you begin to try to stamp it out, change things for the better. Everyone appeared to acquiesce and I got the feeling a couple of people were staring at me and I did begin to get commments that contradicted or denied something I had said.

We did show pictures to one another of now absent beloved person. It had been suggested we bring these and when I took mine out I saw others were reluctant but gradually all had them. The young man (47 lost a wife aged 43 after 2 years of marriage) has planned a Saturday meeting next week in a Starbucks: I can’t get there easily w/o a car, and know without the presence of 2 facilitators I would certainly find myself among overtly alien people; as I say, this came out this time for the first time more definitely. My stories shock them of Jim and my relationship. I did hope to continue the friendship with Drew, but he is careful not to go beyond each set of 6 weeks: he probably fears he would no longer be control of his own life.

An telling experience. This last day there were other more “sincere” individual behaviors like those of a few of these Virginia conservatives types to me. One older woman (78) suddenly addressed the dominating man as sir. Here were people who poured out their hearts to one another, knowing the others strangers. The society around us will not acknowledge, recognize grief for real; it will not do anything about the cancer epidemic. While they turned to strangers, they knew we were all strangers and at the end most would return to being so because people rarely bond permanently after childhood except when when practical, biological and geographical things in their lives bring them together.

Reading something today I asked myself if the Admiral’s death symbolizes the loss of anything significant beyond just himself. He’s a victim of the cancer epidemic, dying young, terribly, and of the medical establishment. I can’t tell all I would about his life but he was also a philosophical anarchist, deeply sceptical of all categories and certainties whatsoever. He was one of those whose life was given individual fulfillment because university was made available to him with a university grant and I meet him because I too went to a free university, won a Chancellor’s Scholarship to study abroad.

I can’t get myself to lie here. Once I start to do that I should stop. Originally it was going to be a mostly cheerful happy blog — reflecting my retired life with my beloved and for the first few months it was. Then the evil hit us — him and through him me.

I have to resolve to live on and within myself by myself and it takes great will power to accept this.

By that I mean that unless I can give up my home (and financially it’s the best place for me, the safest) and move to NYC, I have to live alone as this is alien country — enjoying my books and movies and walks — and rare excursions to things worth going to. I tell myself NYC is a dream: I’ve not lived there for 30 years and anyway I didn’t meet my Captain there — I met him in the UK. Of course I immediately amend that and say I don’t think I could have the strength for this without the presences and company and shared activities of my companions in reading and movies and personal friends here on the Net.


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