Archive for June, 2014

I miss him.

The notebook is now Yvette’s

Dear friends and readers,

This week I remembered how the Admiral read aloud three of Kipling’s Just So stories to Caroline when we had no TV; how he read aloud to me and I to him when we were first married and living in Leeds, and then it was a volume of Virginia Woolf’s letters. That was a happy memory, one I can now scarcely believe happened but it did. And I remembered too how my father read aloud to me Dickens, RLStevenson.

Now that I have my driver’s license back over the last two weeks: Yvette and I have been able to keep a busier schedule and be around people more. We’ve a weekly shopping schedule, and this week I went to my new grief support counselor, saw and talked with my financial advisor and consultant (two hours!), joined the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and went for my first session of Waterarobics (I did enjoy it, especially the relaxation exercises at the close); joined the Cinemart theater’s Sunday film club (once every three weeks) and saw a truly great 2 and 1/2 hour film by Jan Poellen, The Last Sentence, went out to lunch at Clyde’s (well-known local restaurant for office lunches) with a friend, went to a JASNA meeting (suggested really doing charades as an alternative for the ball); and took (with Yvette) wildly protesting cat (Ian, who escaped out of his carrier after desperate chases around the house to put him in it) and quietly mewing one (Clary) to Vet.

I knew I needed him for basic help in life: well I now manage some of these basic things by myself — which includes doing bills, managing taxes. I can now get to the bank again. I have a professional level PC and a IT man who can enter by remote control and helps me out whenever I need it (he will come to the house too). Those things I cannot do and do not need to do I never will, whatever the loss I must endure it. The worst still is driving alone in unfamiliar routes and to unfamiliar places — but familiar streets hurt bad too. Then listening to a great intelligent novel beautifully read aloud helps. I still remember him sitting beside me and how I never thought about where we were, how we got there and back. It’s so lonely in these vast anonymous roads. What an ugly world the highways and cement overpasses make. People have showed me Road Scholar: I get anxiety attacks trying to find a library in Arlington I’ve not been to before. Have to say a direction aloud over and over as I go, and then when I reach the new direction say that. At any rate I’m not ready for it.I have avoided anguish since a week ago last Thursday — again partly prompted from the fool flat back screen TV — and will try to avoid in future. PBS is making it easier for me: I tried to watch the new Mystery Masterpiece programs: they are violent drek, cynical in the stupidest ways. Trash wastelands.

As to plans, I bought 7 different events (plays, concerts, music events) for the Capitol Fringe Festival over 3 weeks in July; if I’m not too late I’ll buy for July 5th, a matinee of a supposed hilarious satire on these increasingly debased ubiquitous crime-police procedural programs at Signature (we’ll get there by cab as here is no parking). I could find only one matinee for Wolf Trap for us and it conflicts with one of Yvette’s social club days: I cannot see myself driving back on the highways at night (it’s a complicated route); Castleton festival and the Shenandoah Shakespeare out of reach. I did look at the schedules and have thought about the fall at the Kennedy Center and Folger Shakespeare Library.

An exterminator was here, so wasps and bees nests all gone; the landscape and mowing man will grass over the two small plots I had planned for flowers for Jim and I; and tomorrow a man will come to tune the piano. It was my father’s and then Jim’s. I’ve cleared the his song books off of it as Yvette has begun to sing and play again. Here she is singing so beautifully. I mean to retrieve it and take good care of it as what is left from my father and Jim. Who knows? Maybe I’ll take lessons to keep the piano alive. I have good precedent in Jane Austen. I have a website to explore and am told music stores today which survive are like bookstores: make worlds of social music to participate in.

I will force myself to look at Angie’s list and Yellow Pages later this week to find a handyman to do another needed thing for the house. One thing at a time. I do dislike doing these things because of bad experiences with contractors over the years.

While at home by myself I have my early morning time reading — sometimes for as much as nearly 3 hours. I read again and watch movies at night and try to blog (like now). Central day time: I wrote my introductory essay for the Valancourt edition of one of the Northanger Novels and am reading towards a review of Kenneth Johnston’s Unusual Suspects as well as making efforts at the edition of Smith’s Ethelinde (I’m proof reading the text and doing arduous notes) and slowly watching and taking down the screenplay for the marvelous The Jane Austen Book Club. I have my good online friends, am still reading with others, talking on-line thoughtful conversation. I listen to music on NPR.

All this no longer keeps at bay the central fact of my life now: that the Admiral no longer exists. In a way I wish he had not said he wanted to be cremated, for at last his body would exist even as a corpse. Now nothing but the dust in that urn. What I find I’m facing for the first time fully is how much I miss him, his company his conversation, his ideas, his wit, his quiet kindness. I am still blocked off from him in the sense that I can’t imagine specifics; I still have trouble remembering what it was we talked so much of — night after night over wine and coffee, during the day over lunch, walking, doing things together. I don’t look at his letters lest I go wild with grief for him: they were so filled with affection for me, he valued me, my ways, my character, he thought me pretty still because he loved me. The last time now will be when I put that flapper dress on for Caroline’s wedding and I saw his eyes light up as he looked at me; I pleased him. August 3rd. I can’t ever hear his voice again. He had lost a good deal of it after that operation which mutilated him and then shortened and rendered wretched the rest of his time.

I am left in the silence. I imagine this is what it is for other widows and widowers. I miss him all the time now. When I wake, I am aware of it, when I fall asleep, coming in, going out. He said among his last words that he did not want to die. I sometimes think what we might have been doing this summer. Last year at this time on this day I was hoping he’d live for even years to come. He’d make it to 70 at least. I didn’t think about whether he’d live to be old, just that he might have more life, more pleasure eventually. We thought he was getting better. We were taking our daily walks. Walking for life, for strength.

As to what killed him: as individual after individual is killed off by cancer much earlier than they needed to die, there is no core constituency, no sizable body of people identifying with one another, no organization adapted for political intervention, no where to intervene it seems — well there is (for a start these powerful medical institutions and insurances companies); the people to act must be those left, but each lives isolated outside these seeming family and job clans; the world constructed to be that way. The world is not constructed for widows of 67 to find true companionship. Maybe you are not supposed to seek it, not supposed to want it. Remember (someone said to me this week) what other people want and do not want.

Talking of flirting on one listserv this week I wrote: I can recognize it, but it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to cope with what is a sort of game. When I was younger I did try to reciprocate in kind and was elephantine, ludicrous. So I think now — for the most part it has not happened in a long time — what I used to do was just look at the person sufficiently hard and silent to convey the idea of “please stop.” I am in accord with the person who cannot understand why people play such games with one another. I experience flirting as a distraction which gets in the way of getting to know the person. Whether you like or are satisfied with it, depends not only on whether you can pull it off (and one feature of an Aspergers/autistic personality is not to be able to because performances manipulate the unwritten rules), but what you seek to get out of a relationship or friendship and what you long to put into it.

Cats as a species seem to be constructed differently. Both have become so much more affectionate to me, and I interact with them as personalities. They love reciprocation. Maybe that’s why some people keep them. It is to be remembered they have been bred this way (by taking them too early from their mothers?)

Do those couples who love one another exist much of the time in the reflected gaze of the other? Honestly I’m not sure I still don’t feel he’s there somehow. His presence is in my mind. And though he’s not there literally it’s a comfort to me to feel this even if I can’t reach him and miss him so.

I am very sad tonight because last year at this time we both hoped he would live. We didn’t think he’d make it to 80, but we hoped for 75. He would be weak, he would not be able to eat and drink as he had, but he would have a number more years of life: we even dreamed of going to England once more, just spend a lot of money to make him comfortable. Now he’s gone forever. Damn all those who hurt him directly, all those who were indifferent to his sufferings and made them worse, those who never told us about the dangers of acid reflex, and all those who pollute the environment and are responsible for doing nothing about this epidemic.


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From Frederick Wiseman’s Central Park — the Admiral downloaded it from somewhere on the Net for me so that I might watch it again and again

Dear friends and readers,

Someone sent me this poem this week: it’s not a good translation but it captures enough of Pablo Neruda’s poem

A man’s life

How long is a man’s life, finally?

Is it a thousand days, or only one?
One week, or a few centuries?
How long does a man’s death last?
And what do we mean when we say, “gone forever”?

We can ask the philosophers,
but they will tire of our questions.
We can go to the priests and the rabbis
but they are too busy with administration.

So, how long does a man live, finally?
And how much does he live while he lives?
When it comes to us the answer is so simple.

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live, holding memories in common, a man lives.

His lover will carry his man’s scent, his touch;
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments.
another will hum his favourite tunes,
yet another share his fears.
And the days will pass,
then the weeks, then the months,
And then there will be a day when
the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach.
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased,
but will have ceased to be separated from us by death.
How long does a man live, finally?

A man lives so many different lengths of time.

Translation by Brian Patten

It doesn’t really apply the lines about friends. The admiral has only me to know his arguments and tell of his views, present the music he loved and my grief does not loosen, my face is not puffed.

Have I done anything with a good meaning I can record publicly this week? I began again listening to Nadia May reading aloud George Eliot’s Middlemarch while in my car driving here and there.

I also was able to see the PBS documentary Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing America on-line. Here it is, don’t miss it!


The Admiral and I lived down the street from Central Park for over a year and we went walking there so many times that and other years and we were to a number of the parks featured. I was cheered to see what was our favorite spot when we went to Niagara Falls (Goat Island) and how the rushing waters were also thought by Olmstead to be one of the most uplifting beautiful spots in the park. I was amused to see quite a number of those speaking were “eminent citizen” types, older women volunteers who form parts of the conservatory organizations which protect and maintain these parks. The documentary shows how central to the concept that a great city must have great parks was Olmstead, his life history, his art, and goes over the realities of several parks. It includes his early travel book (a copy of which I now own) journeying across the south — an accurate and moving (devastating for not being overdone) account of what he saw in these slave states.

I read some good books, I wrote some decent postings and read interesting replies, and communicated with true friends by email letters; Yvette and I had our early evenings together.

Miss Drake

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Dear friends and readers,

The above two photos were taken in 2008, the year Yvette graduated from Buffalo University with an MLIS, Masters in Libraranship and Information Technology. The first of the Admiral and I was taken by Yvette, the second of Yvette and me taken by the Admiral. We did love Niagara Falls, and went twice, once during the day and again in the later evening, walked and explored the place as far as our strength allowed.

Today was father’s day and Yvette and I remembered together this evening over our roast chicken and rice, a glass of wine for me and Tropicana orange juice for her. The admiral was never much for ritual demands for celebration, and saw both father and mother’s days as commercially motivated originally, but the first year we were mother and father (after the birth of Caroline) we did buy one another mother and father’s day presents. He bought me a Cuisinart Food Processor, something for the house you see — and proceeded to use it himself to cook with. Over the years we went through three. I forget now what I bought him that first year but it was also something for the house. We were imitating a conventional sort of family.

I remember tomorrow is Bloomsday. Two years ago the Admiral volunteered to read a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses and was given two. He did so well — no one knew him and they were surprised — that he was asked last year. He never lost his British accent altogether and he could do Irish and Scottish accents very well; also Hampshire (from which he came.) It was that he read with understanding too. He originally intended to participate again, but after the operation on June 3, 2013, he found he was still too weak. We thought at the time he was getting better and would do it again this year. Two years ago tomorrow I went to hear him the second time in an Irish bar, and that weekend we went a barbecue given by some of the leaders of the local Joyce society. Yvette came too. No more.

As I wrote in my obituary he was good father to his daughters, selfish and non-imposing, trying to give them advice to lead to remunerative careers, independence, but beyond that they could spend the four years of college learning what mattered to them. Yvette had a date today, with an Indian young man who said in Indian families there would have been a gathering. Well Yvette and I did our best at dinner.

Today I remembered my own father too, grieved again at his death in December 1989. Like my husband, my father died relatively young; the walls of his long irregularly-beating heart crumbled when he was 68. I’ve opened up to remembering how much I miss him for the first time since about a year after he died (I grieved for over a year). He was an important companion for me in my developing years, the central influence for my reading, my politics, so much, and in the last ones of our shared lives together we phoned once a week, talked for over an hour.

The missing him was strong for years afterward and is re-ignited because while the Admiral did not replace my father (they were such different people), Jim was at least here with me. My book on Trollope was dedicated to my father who loved reading Trollope and set me on the road back by bringing to me in a hospital after a dreadful car accident (I was the pedestrian hit by a woman under the influence of valium) with The Vicar of Bullhampton. I said in that book I came onto the Net to find a substitute for the companionship my father had given me. That is not an exaggeration for the first weeks I was here.


I like to remember my father in above photo, September 1980 just before we went to Virginia, up in the Hudson River park, my mother taking the photo. I am dressed in a style commensurate with his; there’s my Jim (not yet the Admiral, his hair still very dark). My father read well too: as a child he read to me Dickens (I remember the ice-skating scene from Pickwick Paper, and the famous passage ending “Sagacious dog, very.” And R.L. Stevenson’s “Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night.” I never forgot those stories afterward and probably that experience led to my love for RLS.


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Samantha Bond as Lady Rosemary Painswick: a portrait shot

Dear friends,

I’ve just got back from doing something that without a car would have presented me with enough obstacles to prevent me: a walk in the evening in Old Town with my friend, Vivian. Once I could drive us there, we wandered about. We came upon an art and crafts fair and spent an hour or more going through the booths, listening to music, snacking. I bought an elegant pair of black earrings. We heard street performers, lots of people in the streets passing the time, eating ice-cream, tables from restaurants on the sidewalks. It was a lovely evening — cool, balmy, a breeze and we got as far as the Potomac before my feet (bunions among other things) and leg (arthritis) gave out and she tired too (she is 59 and not in the best of health) so we took the free shuttle (a gayly decorated Trolley car-bus that goes up and down King Street from Metro to Potomac most of the day and until about 11) back near to where I had left my car.

The needed letter arrived Wednesday around 11; it took me literally hours to calm down and take stock, make some appts (with the vet for the cats, with financial advisors), write some emails. The past three days have been so much easier than they would have been, from shopping for food, to taking Yvette to the doctors and then a pharmacy; tomorrow I look forward to going to a movie at an semi-art house and joining a film club which meets once a month (Sundays) to watch a fine new movie, hear a discussion and have coffee and snacks. I did pay for a Uber cab to take me to the Haven last Monday (there and back) and had a good session with a new person (Charlie she calls herself), but now I will get there on time easily and afterwards visit the Jewish Community Center nearby to see if they have yoga classes or anything like that I could join for the summer. I’ll look into joining their gym; I know they have a swimming pool. I mean to get myself to the GMU library on another day — I’ve not been for over 5 months now.

It’s not all liberation: I spent four and a half hours at a garage the day after the freeing letter arrived from the DMV and Tuesday I’ve got to go back for another 3 and 1/2 hours. Toyota has declared two recalls on the Prius and the work takes time, plus it’s not good for a car to sit and go nowhere for four month and 3 days (the time of my invisible detention) even if you go into it regularly to start it up, run it a bit, and put it in gear.

Funnily (why funny I don’t know but there is a kind of good-natured irony here) just about all my neighbors who have pretended not to notice, in the last three days have given me victory signs with their arms or hands as I drove by. What a world they tolerate.

And I’m not home free. This astonishingly unquestioned and powerful institution has ignored the doctor’s explicit advice that I didn’t need any monitoring or tests and the new tests which confirmed there is no medical condition whatsoever, and ask that I actually do the set of tests I did last December and January. They are expensive but I do have Kaiser and my co-pay while high for a co-pay (over $100) is not near the couple of thousand these tests cost. And I know I would not have managed this without the lawyer I hired. It was she who wrote the letters which got the doctor to fill out the form exquisitely perfectly and sent everything off, and phone someone to remind this person my forms were on the way and could she send an email saying they had arrived. I have my early October appointment with her set up so that she can help me again when the time comes. How many times I shall have to repeat this I don’t know – surely not every six months for years on end.

Reading Hannah Arendt on the totalitarian state and also a powerful book (horrifying in what it has to tell) about the Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Seige, compiled, edited, translated by Adlan Adelson and Robert Lapides, I’ve become aware of how central to liberty is communication (the first thing the Nazis did when they turned Jewish people into slaves was deprive them of all radios, all information outside their prison-city) and mobility (the Nazis would not allow even animals to pull carts inside the city, only people could do this), I’ve become aware of why the DMV is allowed to ride roughshod over powerless individuals. The other day I read where Republicans call public transportation socialism, in Tennessee have made further creation of more public transportation illegal; I know how in the south especially but many places in the US cities are set up as spokes on wheel, with poorer and lower middle communities out on an edge wheel with the center reachable only through infrequent public transportation or a car.

So I was not surprised last week when the Virginia DMV ordered Uber Cab (a reliable and quick service outside the inadequate public transportation) to cease and desist operations. What the Va DMV wants is $500 per driver: each driver is to be required to buy a taxi license although all have passed cab tests and the company has paid largely for a license. From using the service I know most drivers are originally foreign nationals, many women (! — to use a Uber cab, you have to own a cell or i-phone, be able to use an app, set up an account with a credit card so you are automatically vetted and accountable); they don’t have the odd $500 laying around. DC’s DMV has come to a compromise solution, not Virginia. Apparently the DMV has no way of identifying the individual license plates of the Uber drivers (who own their own cars separately which do not at all look like cabs) so they cannot use computer technology to have the police enforce such an order. Thus Uber cabs keep going. It’s also an anti-immigrant move as well as one that makes Red Top, Yellow and other cab services happy since they find Uber cabs tough competition. I will still use Uber to go to the Shirlington movie-house where parking is barely available and what is there parlous (too crowded tiny spaces with too many cars seeking parking spaces).

Who would not shudder? When I went to vote on Tuesday (alas Patrick Hope lost, he came in second but a trailing second to a businessman type, there to make money and contacts) and asked to present some identification, I pulled out said drivers’ license (not taken away literally) and the woman leapt on it with her hands. She said oh yes, that’s best and somehow swiped it into the computer and a load of information went with it. I was told as of next month all Virginia residents will have to present 1 of 5 different kinds of photo identification to vote. If you don’t have these, there’s an address to go to (one) in Alexandria to get yourself a substitute. It sounds easy but it’s not and there ought to be nothing but the simplest identification asked of you. Is voting no longer a right? teh ability to vote is at any rate threatened in Virginia (and many other states).

But life is short and people frail: rejoice for Yvette too, who was much relieved. Beyond doctors, jobs, the Metro (tomorrow she has a date and it will be hot and Sunday the buses come once an hour), she can now get to her monthly social club. This month they go to an Italian restaurant. Last month they went to a play in DC so she was able to join in but she has missed several good times now.


I have not written about what’s up with me since May 7th — Sunday poetry, memories of my Admiral, a time at the Washington Area Print Group, a set of verses now and again. (I discover that Frances Burney D’Arblay often has month-long hiatuses too.) It’s difficult to tell the truth that it gets harder not easier, that time brings home reality more strongly and inexorably, and all the ways this happens. Last night I began watching one of the greatest mini-series ever made for TV, Brideshead Revisited, one Jim liked so very much and watched twice through with me: at one point Sebastian gives Charles Ryder bunches of yellow flowers: for my 23rd birthday Jim bought me 23 yellow flowers, spending nearly his last money to give me a present when I said I had not celebrated my birthday in years, certainly not received any presents since I was about 15. Their love — Sebastian’s and Charles’s — reminded me of mine and Jim’s in its earliest years and I worried to myself how we had lost that thread in our last years; it was as poignant as Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawkes in Before Sunrise (which was a parallel experience to Jim and mine that first night).

Just a moment late at night, alone in my workroom, one cat on my lap and the other sprawled nearby.

Another night I went back further in time to when I discovered A.O.E. Coppard and H.E. Bates and read Love for Lydia, found it mediocre sub-Lawrentian, sub-gothic, — except for the ice-skating sequences — but rightly loved the mini-series. I listened again to that flute that did Rachmanikov’s piano concerto 2 so hauntingly, warmed to Beatrice Lehman as Lydia’s aunt, watched Mel Martin in her one great role, Lydia herself, a heroine. At the time I could not identify with her as she behaved so meanly and coldly, but whose anger and frustration I now recognize if I still can’t like her for hurting others who hadn’t hurt her:

A fleeting moment of hope

And I remembered how Jim and I had found those books in the many used bookstores then in Alexandria and DC (huge cavernous places in broken down areas, not yet gentrified at all), read some of the stories together, one visit, those early years here in Virginia all alone for me but for my one daughter, aged 2-5 and the first big growth of our book collection.

You don’t want to know about my successful struggle to bypass Kaiser’s insurance drug limitation to get enough sleeping pills so as no longer to be sleep deprived. Suffice to say with the help of a website, a fax machine that miracle-performing pharmacist did her ouida with at a CVS I managed it.

Readers tire of this — so here are some cheering things — I assure you equally felt even if on another a plane.

I now have set up, confirmed for the fall teaching “The Gothic” at GMU’s OLLI program on Tuesday afternoons (and can get there!), and Beyond Barsetshire: Trollope, Irish, European & Political Novelist (its latest title) on at AU’s OLLI program on Wednesday afternoons. Both venues right next to the main campus. Yvette and I managed to make the sharp-scissors cut into the Montreal JASNA, so we’ll be going even if I won’t be giving any papers. We do look forward to seeing friends, participating in the various workshops (especially for me the dance), I’ll like the sessions and papers, Juliet McMaster’s “Afternoon Tea,” and I’ll go a little to the Burney sessions. I’ve yet to decide on a tour: Yvette prefers to go on her own into the city one afternoon. We have our dresses for the ball too.

My panel for EC/ASECS at Delaware, The Anomaly (the single unmarried adult woman living alone, spinsters, divorced and widowed women) has attracted four papers! Now I have too many because I want to write on Widows in Austen, but better too many than too few.

I work away at my projects, far more slowly than I once did, since my mind gets distracted with memories and I have more to do of a practical nature, some of which puzzles me, some of which I have to take immediate chances on — like hiring a man with workers to paint and fix much that needs to be fixed on the outside of the house (rotting faciaboards started this), others long-range and to me inexplicable (investment). I have yet to put a paper onto my website which was published in the Burney Letter on Frances Burney D’Arblay’s life-writing, am behind on blogs, I cannot get myself to give up my daily one hour and a half (and more) posting to listservs and writing to friends — true lifelines for me.

I’ve looked into Road Scholar as a possibility for the future for summer times away for myself. I ordered a North American catalogue which I was able to read and understand (the website is too much for me when it comes to reading about the experiences), and I do think I would enjoy some of them very much but as yet don’t think I’m strong or steady enough to endure the anxiety of getting to the place and back alone, not quite sure what I would like (though maybe the Dickens week will have a novel by him more to my liking and I’ll try that), not being athletic and having such bad feet, but I am looking at it. Yvette appeared interested and said let’s look at a European catalogue (the idea of England again, and she mentioned Paris specifically): more expensive but I’ve sent away for it. Next year is a 40th anniversary and they have what’s called specials (super-expensive, well beyond us) — month long trips to Australia and New Zealand, extraordinary learning as well as luxurious enjoyment. The world is an oyster for some.

So a few realities, some dreams I’m not sure about, ceaseless regret for his not being here (asking myself why I permitted the mutilation of him by that doctor when in my gut I knew it was wrong) edging near consciousness. You see I am weak and do this language softening too. It’s not that he’s not here, it’s that he does not exist any more. I can’t reach what is no more. My way is still to try to shut my grasp of this out by activities and absorption of my mind into books, art, movies, writing (also rocking in my chair with my hand on my face). I find great solace in watching and rewatching Downton Abbey, probably reading far more into it than is there. I found myself bonding the other night with Samantha Bond as Lady Rosemary Painswick (I had not tried to think why she had the “pain” in her name) as she tried to help her niece, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley, now pregnant by the vanished Michael Grigson (into a Germany going Nazi) and vacillating between an abortion and a hidden childbirth where she gives up the baby for adoption). It seemed to me it was hinted that Lady Rosemary had had an illegitimate child many years ago and given it up for adoption, and managed to live an apparently fulfilled, at least self-respecting if lonely life afterwards and a promotional photo appealed deeply. You see it at the head of this blog, gentle reader.

I’ve tried to keep my spirits up by listening to the T’ai chi song at the close of Juliette Towhidi’s Calendar Girls. I regret that I can’t produce the moving shots that in the film accompany the music and must reproduce the unfortunate cover to the DVD but I can at least provide a few stills as you listen:



4 (2)

4 (1)

Do listen to the music, taken the time out to breathe

Calendar Girls by Patrick Doyle — T’ai chi

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Dear friends and readers,

For years now I have found relief and snatches of some inexplicable gratification when I have landed in a novel I can read anywhere and at any time, late at night, on a train, waiting for a bus, one to carry around with me so as to be a friend. The first four of the Winston Graham Poldark novels worked that way for me. Austen did that for years and years. I am one of those people for whom books are my friends. Such books are not easy for me to locate as reviews are often so distorted (often omitting the very feature that makes the book most worthwhile), it’s difficult to pick out just the sort of thing I’m after.

Well, for the past couple of weeks or so, I’ve had two, have been alternating between P.D. James’s A Time to Be in Earnest and Mick Jackson’s The Widow’s Tale. Tonight I’ll recommend Jackson’s drag-heroine — a term used sometimes when the author is male but personates centrally a female so well that you forget the author is not a female (Colm Toibin pulls this off again and again, e.g., The South, Brooklyn); come back another day for James’s diary-as-autobiography.

The Widow’s Tale is flawed but the truest text I’ve read about what it is to lose a beloved partner-, companion, husband, wife, friend who’ve you been with for a long since I read Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and Donald Hall’s Without. Nuland’s How we Die, a great book about the experience of death and intense loss, is more like a science sermon, author-as-modern pastor-doctor helping you go through stages of death in order to understand and by doing that accept. Nuland seeks to assuage, Didion and Jackson act out. Jackson has caught what are the real feelings of a person grieving over the death of a beloved partner of many years — at the same time as he makes acceptable comedy. I found myself laughing.

I can talk about it best by pointing to Hilary Mantel’s unfair review for the Guardian.

Norfolk where our heroine escapes to

After recording an initial very favorable response, and describing the novel’s qualities well, by the time Mantel gets to the end, she is dissing the book utterly. I did not realize how harsh it was until I read it the second time — and had finished the novel. My gut response is to say — yes what Mantel pointed to is a flaw at the same time as her hostility comes out of some deep mainstream longing for the sensible (which comes down to enacting the normative).

First where she’s spot on. The novel is coy. Mantel complained we are not told where the widow has escaped to. At first I thought it didn’t matter — the experience was universal or general thought I. We are never told the heroine’s name. So maybe this is realism — like in the 18th century when one had dashes. But when at no time do we learn how John, the husband died, only that it was sudden, that’s too much. That Jackson won’t tell us that deprives him of real content. Widows and widowers think about how the person died, incessantly. Maybe that’s why he had to substitute the affair – where we do learn the lover’s name and the husband’s.

Mantel, however, did not complain about the bringing in of an affair — with one Paul — that she remembers. The affair rang false. I just didn’t believe the character as presented would have done this, and felt or remembered suddenly this was a fiction. It feels like a memoir up to then, like it’s non-fiction. I thought this male author fears not enough is happening, I’ll get bored, he needs to entertain me — or this discourse is too much of one thing which just may arouse contempt and impatience. And that’s what I suggest Mantel’s response ended up being — scornful, impatient.

It ends well — at least I thought so. It becomes apparent that the marriage was not happy. What an irony that she should grieve so anyway, be cut off anyway, shunned, reduced to the widow’s exclusion, the individual’s life with cats. That’s why we are told that she had an affair — and John seemed not to know: they were semi-estranged. Then she was dumped by Paul for a previous girlfriend who had left him, and now she thinks she is seeing him from afar with his new family. It could be, but it turns out not so.

She (I keep thinking of the author as a she) is showing the lengths desperate cut-offness from other people that the world inflicts on widows within a few weeks, at best a couple of months, after the death, is so intolerable. She wanted this to be a family she was deprived of, some group to relate to deeply. It’s when she realizes she’s been following a family she doesn’t know at all that she decides to return to London.

Jackson then cannot resist a mild but effective affirmation as she stands looking out at the water one last time, the sand, remembers maps of the city she is now returning to. Here is the passage which is also representative of the quality and tone of the novel, its stance:

The sand was firm now, and I could hear the sea way off in the distance, booming and roaring. A quite incredible sound. Halfway there, I remember stopping and taking my shoes and socks off, so that I could actually feel the sand, cold and damp beneath my feet. And, another ten or fifteen minutes later, I could feel how the sand had formed into ripples. Could feel the balls of my feet catch them as I walked. And the booming of the waves was an almighty noise now, and you could smell the salt and dampness in the air.
    Then suddenly I was at the water’s very edge and cold, cold water was under my feet and rushing round my ankles. Thirty or forty yards out the waves came crashing down and the foam came in, spreading over the flattened water. Came sweeping in all around me.
    I still don’t know what I was after. I was all tangled up inside myself. In fact, I think I started to pick over the things I’d been worrying about back at the cottage. Started to rake over the embers of my anxieties. And was doing a pretty good job of breathing some life back into them; – when something happened. As I stood there, watching those huge waves rolling and crashing, at the very end of my tether. Just when I felt that I’d had quite, quite enough … It was as if I had the briefest glimpse of some universal force at war incredible power and infinite grace, which obliterated thought or worry I might ever have. I might almost, in that instant, I finally found myself obliterated — or removed. Which was not the least bit terrifying … And that there might be a place for me in it.
    This morning, in the cold light of day, I could rationalise the whole strange experience by saying that, standing before the waves and beneath the stars, I’d simply been overwhelmed or reassured … Or that when one is panicking there comes a point when one’s mind and body have simply had enough, and the panic suddenly runs out of steam. Some chemical is released into the bloodstream … But that’s not it … It was over in a fraction of a second. It was just that I’d had this glimpse of something. Then I was back there, with my feet in the water, clutching my shoes, and wondering what on earth had just gone on.

And she goes back to her cottage, continues her packing thinking when she goes home she will have the goal of getting through each day to sustain her. That’s how it is all right.

I regret the novel didn’t win the Booker, was only shortlisted, but suspect many ordinary readers’ reactions would be worse than Mantel so like the attempt to create understanding for autistic people and more acceptance and help (which has backfired and made the average person use the autistic label for their idea of the wholly unacceptable or monstrous) telling reality will end in hostility, dissing. If more attention were paid to what it is showing it’d do no good. Didion and Hall are respected as they have the cover of non-fiction; Nuland was a physician. Better give the prize to Beryl Bainbridge (which they do one year for a feeble book) after all she knows the right people who will be pleased and praise the prize.


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Penshurst, the great hall

We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind/if but once we have been strong — Wordsworth

How do I miss you? let me count the ways
the lady poet once counted so well,

I miss you when I turn round and you’re not
there. I miss your talk, your sense of humor,
how you turned the world off.

Quiet need found rest and peace

I love you for all you were,
all you did for me and can no longer
loved you utterly unconditionally too.
So you loved me.

But this is how I feel when my fragile sense
of security is not jeopardized

Put another way than complacency:

without you without your confidence
(whence people acquire this I know not)
I am at a loss to act.

When we were first told that the cancer had spread to his liver and then that his condition was hopeless, I remember thinking I lost my bet. Selfish of me to think that but it went through my mind. Strength now is to see my bet was realistically based on who I am and was upon meeting him, where I came from, and where he did and what he was, and what were our possibilities and choices. The odds were against us and we did better with our dice than the polluted world’s bookie would have allowed. Now I have to live on within these possibilities, on what he has left me, much diminished because without him. So I didn’t lose it. Its effects just did not last as long as I — he too — hoped. It was all I had, all that came my way and while he lived, we covered for one another. I was his honorary duchess and he was my admiral — our little joke at ourselves. But they had real efficacy to protect our self-esteem while we both lived.

A friend is sending me a copy of the 1970s film adaptation of Love for Lydia; she got a region 2 version and can’t play it. I look forward to when it comes and watching it.

I’ve begun my first week of Literature of the Country House, and as far as it went (it’s not taxing at all, an hour and 3/4s of videos and texts to read), it was good. I then read the whole of Jonson’s “To Penhurst” for the first time in years and remember how in 1976 (his father was dying of cancer) the admiral (though I didn’t call him that then) and I visited England and spent a day at Penshurst and a guide showed us around the house and we saw the great hall — in January it was and we walked around the grounds. I can hope to read Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House this summer.

Jim liked to listen to Elgar, especially The Enigma Variations


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