Archive for January, 2016

Camille Pissarro, Louveciennes (1872)

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ne’er been broken-hearted …

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears
— Robert Burns, Ae Fond Kiss

Dear friends,

As the snow started to come down heavily on Friday, the 22nd, and nothing had been done by the state of Virginia or Alexandria City, to salt the roads or plow what had fallen on the Thursday evening, and everything was shutting down, from buses to Metro, from all public institutions to private ones, I found myself remembering how today would be Laura’s birthday. I call her Caroline here, her middle name: I named her after a particularly happy character in Richardson’s Grandison, Caroline, Lady L.

Could it, I asked myself, she is 38? That childbirth happened 38 years ago? Yes. How did this happen? where did all the years go? hardly enough time to turn round.

She was born between ice storms and snow events. Jim, my admiral, went out the night before I went into labor, the 23rd, to dig out our Volkswagon bug (remember them?) after snow and iced rain. On the evening of the 24th day he drove it and me down to 2nd avenue lower Manhattan where Beth Israel hospital is, left the car in the middle of the street (it was snowing), and we endured our ordeal in hospital; before the baby was born, in the wee hours of the 25th, he rushed out and parked it, rushed back, and then much later that morning drove back to the top of Manhattan where we lived (under the Cloisters). That night more ice and snow, so upon getting up, out he went dug out again and drove downtown again …. My whole mind caught up by this memory, how strong he was, how good and continually selfless such behavior …

Well, at the time it seemed a minor matter all this snow and ice in comparison with what was happening to us in the hospital.

Now had I been pregnant this five days, how would we have gotten to the hospital. Would I have been advised to go there and wait? and pay of course. How many times have I read about the appalling state of NYC in the 1970s (e.g., Louis Menand’s “Time of the Broken Windows,” in the New Yorker, Oct 2015), and how many photos seen of what looks like grim poverty stretched for miles. But I know that in the 1970s NYC salted and plowed its streets on and off continually — bad for dogs paws (like other New Yorkers I had 4 little or a set of boots for our dog Llyr in the 1970s) but great for keeping ice at bay.

New Yorker cover from several years ago

People did not talk send news bulletins out of the great snowpocalypse across the world. No hashtag snowzilla.

So some of the danger here in Northern Virginia was not inevitable. While it may be the worst storm in a couple of decades, it is by no means unprecedented and what’s dangerous where I live and further south and in the west, is the local authorities do nothing about it until the storm is over and then the two counties move very slowly. All public schools are shut tomorrow (Tuesday, the 26th) and many institutions still closed; much of Fairfax still not passable. No pressure put on private electricity companies to improve their act (though in the last ten years they have installed new computers and improved greatly); no pressure on the Metro.

This is a Fairfax street from a snow storm in 2010 and I daresay blocks in Fairfax in 2016 resemble it — the photo also shows that this kind of storm happens.


In that year I remember Jim, I, and Izzy (aka Yvette, a name a French teacher once gave her), walking in the storm to a nearby movie-theater to see an HD-opera. Alexandria plowed then too. Rousseau said the huge deaths in Lisbon during the earthquake were from human arrangements and the lack of these far more than the earthquake.

Back to our present anti-society society world. On Saturday, the middle of the 23rd when the snow was abating some, I knew if nothing was done at all by the time the snow stopped, it would be excruciating hard work to break down the mounds. So I paid two men who were passing by in a truck looking such just such shoveling work and money to dig a preliminary path from house to sidewalk on Saturday: it helps to make the start of a tunnel to be dug when the snow stopped:


For $25 they dug around the car too. My next-door neighbor who is not living in her house just now was back with her husband and they were shoveling and she kindly shoveled my sidewalk again.

As of yesterday afternoon, Sunday, the 24th, my street, a tertiary one had been plowed once:


Another neighbor who lives in a house half made of glass that looks like it should be standing on a cliff, and who owns a snowmobile had also plowed. He clears the intersections too — each year; it makes him feel public-spirited, possibly lordly. So he came round after that. Then not for nothing are we the People’s Republic of Alexandria: Alexandria City sent a plow twice more!

Sunday afternoon when I went out I experienced how a sense of a neighborliness, togetherness had been aroused. It was almost enough to begin to revive my utterly flagged-out faith in local humanity. People were walking about their houses, digging and talking, comparing experiences. Dogs on (and not on) leashes. When I waved to a man in his thirties all bundled up who had a noisy snow machine that was efficiently clearing snow from his driveway from across the street a couple of houses down, he and his wife came with their machine and shovels re-dug my path and re-opened the space around my car. I and the woman introduced ourselves to one another for the first time, told a little of our lives and hoped to meet again. Her oldest daughter is an Isabella. My 50 year old male neighbor on the other side of my house for the first time since I’ve been widowed showed an interest, actually came near to offering help. When he saw me walking in the street, he inquired if Laura comes round and when I said, oh yes, he looked relieved. Still he might have felt compelled to offer to dig if I had said no.

We were fortunate and did not lose power — except for one heart-stopping moment. We can’t make fires in the fireplace as Jim used to, no candles. I remember one year in the 1990s, we had thick ice on the ground for days; we had lost our electricity for more than a day. That night Jim — my captain oh my captain — made a fire and actually scrambled eggs for us on a frying pan. We had gone down to the shopping mall (by car) and bought back hot coffee, chocolate and Yvette then drank milk. Now I have superlatively good flashlights and two cell phones. We would have to walk half an hour to find cooked food and hot drinks. But the electricity came back on immediately, and Izzy took these two pretty pictures: from her side window twilight


and then again from her back window dawn


Today I paid two adolescent boys some $38 to dig out the thick mound of snow and ice in front of my car, a kind of high blanket and wall between it and the street. They started the proposed fee of $25 but it was such hard work and they were at it for so long, I gave them more. One of them began to use his shovel as a kind of heavy axe and I feared he would dislocate his shoulder. He didn’t but said his hands were hurting when they left to (so they said) go right home. Both live down the hill from me in what is left of public housing in Alexandria (decent houses, overtly modest lest these arouse the ire of lower middle Republican types).

And here are Izzy’s pictorial essays on the process of the storm from start to mid-way:

Winter shows up 15 minutes late

Snowed in life, surveying the meadows


Sandy Welch’s North and South (from Gaskell’s novel): no that’s not snow, that’s the clouds of cotton that got into workers’ lungs, diseased and killed them young …

I have gotten a lot of reading work done towards my teaching this coming spring (by and on my now beloved Elizabeth Gaskell – scroll down to see description of course) and coming paper on the two Poldark films for an 18th century conference this March (the whole of Lez Cooke’s excellent British Film Drama: A History). I sent in a proposal to teach Trollope’s Small House at Allington this coming summer (follow-up for previous course, Making Barsetshire) and it’s been accepted:

Barsetshire 5: Trollope’s Small House at Allington

We will read The Small House at Allington and Trollope’s short story, “The Parson’s Daughter at Oxney Colne.” Rumor hath it (she isn’t always treacherous) this ripely-mature psychologically subtle novel is still cited when someone asks, “Which Trollope novel should I read first?”, and it’s one that has never fallen out of print. While I encourage those who take this course to first watch the 1983 BBC mini-series, Barchester Chronicles and read Dr Thorne (Barsetshire 3) before the course begins, since Trollope himself resisted including The Small House in the first publication of the whole Barsetshire series, we will also discuss how it fits in Trollope’s whole oeuvre, and his great short story of the parson’s daughter, will enable us to see its themes more clearly from the different setting. The usual Barsetshire semi-comic resolution in both is derailed entirely with the London world so aggressive that the conflicts in failure and price of success for a kind of existence (wealthy, powerful, prestigious) rip apart the earlier fractured pastoral world – for our uncomfortable contemporary consideration. We will also have Millais’s delicately beautiful illustrations to look at.

I’m working on a panel proposal (!) for the East Central 18th conference for next fall on Tom Jones and Henry Fielding (out of this year’s teaching; click here and here, includes extraordinary film on the slaughter at Culloden): thus far

What could be more familiar than Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones? Since the still remembered and wildly popular film by Tony Richardson and John Osborne, whose thrust is mildly reinforced by the more apparently “faithful” BBC mini-series (available on-line), the title is almost a household word. And yet pick it up tomorrow and read it, what more strange? …


Joan Greenwood as Lady Bellaston, David Tomlinson as Lord Fellamar (1963), John Sessions as Fielding trying to keep track (1997) — 35 years on

I carried on my slow watching of the superb 1972 20 episode War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman (featuring Anthony Hopkins, Angela Down, many players familiar to me from the 1974 Poldark and Pallisers) and my weekly bouts with my BBC iplayer to see the humanely interpreted 6 part new one, 2016, War and Peace re-booted we may say by Andrew Davies.


Another re-booting 40 years on, Anthony Hopkins then, Paul Dano now

On Trollope19thCStudies, we’ve elected to spend this coming summer reading this vast book together — there’s a beautiful new translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker, and I’ve an edition with a cast list (giving all the Russian alternative games of the characters) and now hope at least to listen to David Case reading the whole thing aloud in my car. Just me and him once again. Half-way through Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald, not to omit more reading on disability, women artists, women living alone in the 18th through 19th century.

I sent Caroline an electronic birthday card this morning, from OJolie.com, a vast deal more contemporary, intelligent, authentic somehow than Jacquie Lawson. The memories of 38 years ago were never far from my consciousness.

And that it’s not just her and my remembered day but Virginia Woolf’s, and more to the point of this diary, Robert Burns’s. Each January 25th in the last few years of his life we’d commemorate Burns’s birthday with a ritual to remember Burns. Some Scots-like food, scotch whiskey and ginger ale, and Jim would read aloud poetry by Burns. Jim could read aloud with something of a Scots accent: while I don’t remember him reading this one but rather the one “To a Haggis,” half to make fun of it, this remains one of my favorites: it has his characteristic stance and voice, but I love it for the truthful line: “the best laid plans of mice and men/gang aft aglay”

On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
        Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
         Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
        Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
        An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
        ’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
        An’ never miss ’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
        O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
        Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
        Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
        Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
        But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
        An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
        Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
        For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
        On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
        I guess an’ fear!

Oddly it makes me feel better to see my companionship with the mouse — in my case domesticated (small) cats. I am as powerless as they against natural forces and all that people together in their social lives construct which makes individual existence so hard. To speak metaphorically I try not to overturn my equivalent of this poor mouse but often I might and not realize or think about how my existence hurts others. For example, I eat meat or chicken nightly; once a week lamb; once in a while tuna. For all these meals an animal has been killed; the processing, packaging and sending to the supermarket of their remains bothers the lives of other people. Sigh.

No Jim to read for fun, and comfort, but only my thoughts to keep me company after supper — Izzy and I eat and talk together each evening. So tonight I began a Future Learn course on Robert Burns. Superb thus far: informative, insightful, filled with poetry (read aloud!), about his afterlife too.

Now in Bronze, a Scots icon, died at 37, from disease, poverty, overwork (supporting himself as an exciseman at the time)

To conclude, from a calendar image for January and February:

Jim liked the Kliban cat images and said of them something to the effect they are distinguished from other cat images because the cats were behaving highly improbably even if they were people …


How much I must have recourse to, how many people I need to turn to, to substitute for my beloved. Heigh ho the wind and the rain, for the rain it raineth every day.



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Frank Weston Benson, Currituck Winter Marsh (American waterscapes painter)


For the past two weeks or so we’ve known some deeply chill mornings and nights.. It’s not been sustained and some days the temperature has reached the 50s fahrenheit, but in the last few days at long last (so to speak) brutal cold. The temperature never gets above freezing (high 28 say) and When the wind is high and my skin burns through my gloves, it makes me wonder why I was missing winter. Yesterday morning, this morning and now tonight it’s been 17 to 18 fahrenheit outside and (I am told by the weather channel on my computer) feels like 1. The sky different shades of blue over the day, from light with pink, to brighter and whiter blues, to twilight and so on to through my window pitch black night.

I know when it’s winter because my cats seek the sun. My beloved Ian pussycat (aka Gingerbread Cookie) sat smiling in a puddle of sun he had to stretch his head to share a small part of the experience. I petted and his smile got stronger. I wish I could have captured it in a photo but words (to me) are still good. He presses his body hard against mine, nudges me with his head, softly pushes back and forth. I’ve used this photo earlier this month but here it can show him putting his face to the light: here it’s a lamp, reflected computer light and a bit of sun all together. Also he’s smiling


ClaryCat on my lap and near the radiator this morning. She was smiling half-dozing but when I put my cell phone camera near her she stopped smiling and looked serious, turning her head to see the device. She is a picture-adverse cat, a private creature.


Cat friends I can lavish physical affection on, who respond; she will lick me thoroughly occasionally but I’m fondest of moments when it’s sort of perfunctory lick. Then she’s my comfort, he my loving companion in these long days for me, quiet –and at night sad — apud libros (among books).

On one of my listservs a friend put this poem: it’s a translation by Eavan Boland from old Irish.

“This Old Irish poem was written by a monk about his cat, in around the 9th century, and found in a monastery in Austria. (Pangur Bán is the name of the monk’s cat.) Describing the life of the monk in Cat manuscripthis study with his cat as his happy companion, ‘Pangur Bán’ has everything for the cat-lover and book-lover. Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice. ”

Myself and Pangur, cat and sage
Go each about our business;
I harass my beloved page,
He his mouse.

Fame comes second to the peace
Of study, a still day
Unenvying, Pangur’s choice
Is child’s play.

Neither bored, both hone
At home a separate skill
Moving after hours alone
To the kill

When at last his net wraps
After a sly fight
Around a mouse; mine traps
Sudden insight.

On my cell wall here,
His sight fixes, burning,
Searching; my old eyes peer
At new learning,

And his delight when his claws
Close on his prey
Equals mine when sudden clues
Light my way.

So we find by degrees
Peace in solitude,
Both of us, solitaries,
Have each the trade

He loves: Pangur, never idle
Day or night
Hunts mice; I hunt each riddle
From dark to light.

Eavan Boland (see two more this time rhyming translations and an abridgement by W. H. Auden and creative translation by Seamus Heaney)


I found Spitalfields’ (the gentle author) blog on Shoreditch the Church Cat a little disquieting. It’s a half-truth that cats adopt people, because the implication is they don’t need us. They do, they have been bred to. The cat shown has clearly sometimes been starving; what’s called his “mysterious” behavior, his vanishings, are an ingrained instinct to protect himself. He has almost no weapons against most creatures who can kill him so easily: only run and hide. Why oh why can people, even the gentlest, not enter empathetically into the worlds of others.

At night as I’ve done every year of my life since I was an adult when we have this cold, I remember the homeless and hope they are being taken in somewhere, treated decently, helped to keep warm.

This Friday we are promised a big snow storm. People are over-reacting and worrying about it. It’s just a prediction, might not happen. But we’ve had so little that they are determined all will shut down as if to make up for the lack of snow days.

I did manage this past Sunday with my friend, Sybille, to see the AvantBard Washington Shakespeare Company’s latest production: an Indonesian-shaped Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Randy Baker: we braved the cold.

The puppets are lacy heavy paper, and look black through the screens; they are manipulated by sticks

The company used Indonesian puppets behind screens for Titania and Oberon and the fairies and once in a while Puck turned into a puppet behind the screen, and during the time he was as “ass,” Bottom did. The play opened with Indonesian music and it accompanied some of the sequences. Shakespeare’s core play proceeds as usual; nothing is cut or re-arranged and it is performed effectively by the actors in front of the sceens effectively: the stark punishments threatened Hermia by her mother (the father is made into a mother), Hippolita’s resentment of Theseus, his bending; the hilarious comedy to the dark traumatic moments in the forest of the lovers and also mechanicals. There is real meanness projected when Bottom is so humiliated. And the poetry of high uplift spoken by Theseus and Puck at the clsoe. The use of the puppets, the soft colored lights, conveys the idea of a strange “other” realm, dangerous and at times cruel, indifferent, mischievous, which in modern productions is hard to get across as connected to the realm of faeries. I wondered who the Indian child Oberon so wanted from Titania was. Modern popular music and a humble peddlar’s cart accompanied the mechanicals; their play within a play was funny to me — the audience did not seem to laugh at that as much as usual. It was too sparsely attended so I hope this small blog will reach someone. A few cavils (to maintain truth is to keep belief): the actor playing Theseus was not up the verse (so some of the poetry was lost). But a strong young actress does Puck (wonderful movement and she speaks the verse beautifully) and marvelous versatility in the actor doing Bottom. If you live in the DC or Virginia area, don’t miss it.

As I walked out, as when I went to hear the Folger Shakespeare Christmas concert, I feel something of the joy I used to when I would go to such theatrical productions with Jim. I saw a little embarrassed Sybille. She had praised the production strongly during the intermission when I had been dubious about the use of the puppets and wishing actors had been on stage for Oberon and Titania. She persuaded me this production went outside Europe and was inclusive.She was with me for the concert (bought the tickets, drove us home). Now in the moments just after the play ended, I said nothing, but she saw it in my eyes, and quickly tried to say how amusing this had been, to bring down the mood. But she herself gave money to the actor at the door and signed a list to get notifications of more plays.

I am registered to go to a day-long series of lectures (2 in the morning, one after lunch) on Vermeer at the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian museum this Saturday.

A 17th-century master of light and color, Vermeer creates a timeless world where the smallest actions take on a beauty beyond their commonplace settings. His artistry rests in his ability to transform a simple daily activity — such as pouring a jug of milk or reading a letter — into a sensitive exploration of the human experience. Though few in number, his masterpieces, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Milkmaid, The Music Lesson and a few dozen more, are considered some of the finest art ever created. Independent art historian Aneta Georgievska – Shine discusses Vermeer’s place within the artistic culture of Holland, takes close looks at some of his favorite subjects and the meanings they possibly reveal, and explores Vermeer’s legacy as reflected in the work of artists and writers from the end of the 19th century to the present.

VermeerWomanwithLute (Large)

I’ll probably rewatch the wonderful film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring (a young Scarlet Johanssen and Colin Firth as the principals)

Cross your fingers for me we do not have a huge snowstorm in DC and I get to go.

That day I shall be hard put to be alone and today try to hope I will be able to console myself by remembering one of the songs I heard and so enjoyed the last happy New Year’s Eve Jim, I and Izzy had

I shore these fragments in the ruins. And it will always be like this for me. I have my books, my writing, my pussycats, daughter at home with me, what I do in the world to reach art, culture, be with people somehow, but it’s not enough to give me meaning. I do not choose to stay so long behind him. The heart needs felt heart loving back — as I said about Shoreditch, the Church cat.

Miss Drake

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John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93), November later afternoon, Stapleton Park, Leeds (1880s)

Outside an order
I calm within
Yet my soul in shambles

Friends, I wish I could write poetry like this whose lines make beautiful what my haiku condenses:


(after Baudelaire)

The insinuating dusk, friend of all outlaws,
is here like a conspirator or as a wolf will pause
as it lopes; dark and light pass in the sky’s revolving doors,
our beast’s teeth lengthen like white buds in our jaws.

Twilight, old lover, how I still thirst for you
together with those whose hands can say and mean it too
today we laboured, O blue draught that grants relief
to the mind that is tom at by a feral grief:
the dogged visionary with his forehead of stone,
the screen-shrunk wage slave who straphangs home alone.
Meanwhile, in the infested air, astral parasites
rise like any cufflinked puppets of their appetites
and clatter their plumes on the steel-shuttered shops;
no wind perturbs the streetlights gleaming like sucked cough drops,
beneath which bought love’s flame strokes silver foil
as it releases the antennaed horde of those who toil
along the arcana ofcondemned estates’scrawled stairwells
(writhing like a worin in the city’s poisoned bowels
and turning to its own end all that men can eat,
an enemy assuming that victory’S complete).
Now and then you hear the sizzle of an angel’s wing
from striplit kitchens, the streets’ unhuman yipping,
the tack-tack-tick of the wheels in the gambling den
that flashes and dings like a giant playpen,
while the petty criminals, whose line of business
is just as exacting as a suit’s – and work it is –
are outwitting all locks with agile, godlike hands
so they can join the blazing feast and deck their queens in brands.

In this grave radiance, this fatal Now, my soul
recollects itself as the silent pupil of the whole
roaring vortex where dusk is always coming on,
where night’s trap snaps white necks with teeth of iron
and the sick take the exit for the pit (we’re lovin’ it);
the world is an asylum erected by a scream,
in which each evening one less gouches in his meat
in the comer by the heater where the nobles sit:
all who’ve never known unless in dream
the understanding that life’s holy, mere existence sweet.

— Ned Denny

I lack the actuating power
he provided and must endure
the straining to keep

to (as the man says)
“grave radiance
in this fatal Now.”

Or hold fast.
Jim would’ve put it,
That’s all there is, my you.

Portrait of a Young Woman, a fresco from Pompeii, 1st century CE

This was playing on NPR on the radio (my mother left me) while I was writing this blog:

Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto 2, 2nd movement — with a montage of landscapes

Nearby, Ian alert, Clarycat snuggling in:


I turn to do bills, then read Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzerald: A Life.

Saturday morning, cool, rainy …
Miss Drake

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Vuillard_PlVintimille1916 (Large)
Vitnmille (1916) by Edouard Vuillard (188-1940), a detail of one of his murals is the top image for this blog …

Dear friends and readers,

So many people on face-book and elsewhere on the Net and in physical life cheerily uttering “Happy New Year!,” others half-parodying this observance. Like all the lights against the darkness.

An awareness that death is going to come to us all defines our attitudes towards our lives and how we live them.

St Petrock’s

So many dead lie round, each coffin-shape
under the freezing grass a heap of earth
to show the earth each wooden box displaced,
the same good top-soil, saved, the healthy turf
put back to grow again, less and less
prominent as every decade scrapes
the churchyard with a new man come to mow,
until only this slight unevenness
underfoot reminds me they’re below.

It’s almost dark. Someone will be here soon
to lock the church we took a sudden right
to look for, downhill into narrow Parracombe
and out, past flashing Christmas fairy-lights,
a couple with an unfamiliar car
he’s watched across the fence from his front room,
thinking to leave us in the day-long dusk
of cold St Petrock’s thirteenth century part-
restored, redundant, consecrated husk,

imagining, I suppose, our late arrival
worth something to us, worth sitting for
through hours of gritted motorway, our drive
a pilgrimage, not this five-minute detour
tagged on to the end of Boxing Day,
an opportune, unpromising surprise
I should have known you would appreciate
as properly as here they used to pray.
I stand beside a grave beside the gate —

yes, yes, the church is lovely, squatting there
solid against the sky’s pale winter black.
Just as it pleases you to stir the air
between the crooked pews and squint at cracks
under the ancient tower (crooked too
and roped-off, ‘Falling Masonry Beware’)
this disappearing outline pleases me:
its icy foreground, gloom I can’t see through
to the thick of where the walls should be,

its bulk a blank surrounded on all sides
by listing headstones, frosted flower-beds,
a meadow full of children, husbands, wives,
and, further off, the hidden human spread
of double-glazed windows, open fires, hot baths,
a heaven on earth I’d give my after-life
to believe in. Feel my hands. My feet are numb.
Before we lose each other on the path
shall we go home and let the warden come?

— Kate Bingham



Jim and I didn’t visit many graves or graveyards. I remember though that the hour or so we spent in Rome in a small 19th century graveyard for Protestants where you can find the gravestones of some famous English poets (Keats is one) was one of the high points of our visit to Rome. The sayings on the stones, the flowers, bushes, the quiet and lack of pomp. It is now partly a cat sanctuary — and duly commemorated. Cats are found in and about the stones; they have a separate place too.

Another high point was a 15th century wall mural in a 13th century church, both in the midst of being restored. The whole scene with the picture at its core.

When in London, we visited Anthony Trollope’s grave in Kensal Green — at the time not as well-taken care of as it is today. Thackeray’s is a mess and so too many others. Both were fine to our eyes. They told truths. In Paris we went into a very formal graveyard and walked right out: the heaviness of the monuments, the rigorous symmetrical lines; all clamping down on, refusing to accede to the natural world.

Jim wanted to be cremated so I did it and realize that unless you have some sort of belief in supernatural realities, it’s a romantic illusion to persuade oneself that a corpse in a coffin rotting slowly in the ground provides comfort, and, unless you can take what it means in a salutary spirit, to dwell on such sites morbid. Nonetheless, what I should like to do would be to bury the urn he chose, and the poem he wrote for it in some graveyard with a stone providing a site to remember him at. His mother buried his father’s urn before she left Southampton to live out her last years in Leeds — where he and I met, married, and lived the two years of our lives together.

Jim’s poem on his urn:

If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign mantelpiece that is for a while England.

It is on my mantelpiece, but as he says, but “for a while”


There is a St Petrock’s in Devonshire; it has an active program to help the homeless. Its motto:


Jim never worried about ending up homeless, but his father did. When his Dad would talk of this, Jim’s Mum would pooh-pooh him.

Miss Drake

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Poor tiny tree. I feel sorry for it. It never drank its water from its bowl, not permitted to grow up.

Dear friends and readers,

And you thought I had done with Christmas. Well past its sell-by date? Not at the Folger Shakespeare Library where epiphany is not forgot. I bring in the new calendar year with a jigsaw puzzle. I had forgotten how gratifyingly satisfying an activity it is. When in her adolescence my older daughter Caroline would do difficult ones by the hour and day and week.

To go chronologically: On December 30th, I spent part of a day doing a puzzle with my neighbor-friend, Sybille, drinking some kind of eggnog. It takes concentration and you gradually find yourself gaining great satisfaction as the colors of the individual pieces fit into the large scheme of things:

NYC Christmas, a Ravensburger puzzle (an early 20th century painting)

We always started with the frame. Auntie Phyl taught my sisters and me how to pick out all the straight-edged pieces of the jigsaw first, to find the corners, and to build up the four sides. Then we would begin to sort the colours, and to construct areas of the picture. Unlike some people, we did not have a set procedure for this stage of the puzzle, and we were never of the wilfully austere school that does not look at the picture on the box. Looking at the picture for us was part of the pleasure. Doing a jigsaw … was a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie … We would sometimes reach a stage where Auntie Phyll would say, ‘Well, I can’t see by the colours any more, we’ve done all the bright ones, so I’m giing to have to go by the shapes now! .. One of the strangest and more unsettling cognitive experiences of a difficult jigsaw … occurs when a piece that has eluded intensive search over hours and days and weeks suddenly makes itself known, and fits into its home. At once, the piece loses its profoundly unknown quality, and becomes so much a part of the pattern that within seconds you cannot remember where the gap was — Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet, a Personal History with Jigsaws.

New Year’s Eve Izzy and I went to the Olive Garden with two friends, had dinner, and returned home. I probably brought in the New Year’s later that night watching the 1972 BBC 20 episode film adaptation of War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins a brilliant Pierre, my favorite Angela Down as one of the central hero, Andrei’s sister, Maria). I’ve started watching Andrew Davies’ 6 part War and Peace and am disappointed as too much has to be left out, the effect is an outline of the book, intelligent, catching the right moments with perceptive thematic resonance, but painfully thin. Jim had downloaded it for me from Pirate Bay, and Caroline had saved it from the crash of my first computer by putting it on my laptop for me. Where would I be without all three I thought that night as I retired to bed with my pussycats, Clary and Ian?


And, one last lingering night at the Folger Shakespeare Library, justified (rationalized) by the historical reality that for Elizabethans and Jacobeans, the festival time ended on January 6th. It was seasonal, church and community-centered, with plays, the controlled anarchy of fools’ days, feasting in great houses, traditional dances, masques.

On Epiphany (so Elizabethans would call it), tonight the Folger opened its older reading room, whose shelves, appearance, lighting, tables is that of a great hall, to virtuoso performance by one of the great Shakespearean actors in the Washington repertoire circuit, Louis Butelli. I’ve seen him many times: Iago, Cassio, often the second supporting actor not requiring any conventional youthful handsomeness. It was conceived and put together by Robert Richmond, most of it passages and lines from Hamlet which enabled Butelli to seem as framing to tell the story of the play as the gravedigger. The Folger Shakespeare Library director, Dr Michael Witmore spoke and said earlier in the day the room we were had bene filled with scholars reading very old books. Some of the most contented moments of my life in these years I’ve spent in the DC area have been reading 400 plus year old books in that room. Every seat was taken, perhaps as many as six rows in a large horseshoe arrangement around a fireplace at center of one of this room’s walls. It was “interactive:” Butelli gently maneuvered members of the audience into speaking lines from the play and in two sequences reading lines in key scenes (one Hamlet with Ophelia).


Among the passages chosen were those of the players’ play, of Hecuba frantic with grief, unable to save her aging husband from the barbaric death inflicted on him. I should not continue to be surprised with how Shakespeare’s use of this melodramatic idiom conveys such universal human truth I thought of the refugees from El Salvador forced to return to the most murderous place on this earth.

Afterward, there was a wine and gracious snacks reception in the second reading room, the contemporary and brightly lit one where there are more than adequate outlets for using computers. I talked with one man who said he has spent his Christmas Eve day as an usher in at the Shakespeare theater on 14th street in DC watching a play, and his New Year’s day at another Shakespeare theater as an usher watching another play. He goes to the poetry readings at the Folger and to the concerts. I liked that. I dream of going to DC homeless shelters to help provide meals for the day — like Scrooge’s now aging fiancee in the Alistair Sim’s movie of A Christmas Carol — I’m making fun of myself here. This man neither drives nor has a TV in his apartment.

Of course nowadays you can watch all the TV you want on your computer — but it is a narrow select TV you curate yourself. It’s what I do most of the time. I watch PBS news most evenings: Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill, Jeffrey Brown, Fred de Sam Lazaro, Malcolm Bradley and (of course) Hari Sreenivasin my favorites. Thus I avoid most commercials — PBS reports has these too so I start the show late and leave before Judy has to advertise for PBS itself at the end of the program. And I correct what I see by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez’s DemocracyNow.org much smarter take and far more insightful candid interviews with searching questions on the day or week or month under view and often much more important topics over the hour.

Life has gone on for Izzy and I since I last wrote. We took down our tiny tree, pulled out lights off of the tree on our front lawn, I took down the cards arrayed across the piano, and saved a few. She returned to full day full time work as a librarian, and I to my life among books. The past week and a half I have been deeply enjoying a return to Charlotte Smith’s novels, poetry and recent criticism and scholarship on her writing. Also reading about Scotland (Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters) as insofar as Smith’s novel, Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake is known, the portions of it set on Scotland are remembered for their picturesque beauty and hard realism. Have I said my edition of Smith’s Ethelinde is going to be published by Valancourt Press this spring? (!) I managed to send off a proposal for a conference on Smith next October 2016 Chawton House Library. I will write about this on my Austen reveries blog. Cross your fingers for me it’s accepted. My spirit soared reading Smith’s sonnets and Beachy Head and other poetry this week. She seems never to tire of walking on the cliffs of Sussex:

Scene, on the Cliffs to the Eastward of the Town of Brighthelmstone in Sussex. Time, a Morning in November, 1792.

Slow in the Wintry Morn, the struggling light
Throws a faint gleam upon the troubled waves;
Their foaming tops, as they approach the shore
And the broad surf that never ceasing breaks
On the innumerous pebbles, catch the beams
Of the pale Sun, that with reluctance gives
To this cold northern Isle, its shorten’d day

A friend on face-book whom I met in London this year posted a photo of this area today:

The feel was gloomy on the warren east of Folkstone towards Dover East this past December; a whole area had been taken back by the high flooding seas of climate change, though, she wrote, “in the low land you may be able to make out in the distance in this picture, behind the tree, is Samphire Hoe, a totally new part of England, created from the waste from drilling the Channel Tunnel on the British side …”, prompting me to recite some lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene as read aloud in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie by Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon to Kate Winslett as Marianne:

What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eat the earth, it is no more at all …
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth aught,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought …

I also found myself reading Wordsworth, just unbeatable for depth of feeling, solace, strength.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
        We will grieve not, rather find
        Strength in what remains behind …

I signed up for a four week seminar on World War One books at the Smithsonian: I’ve read and taught Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, with the film, Jim and I went to a London production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End where the technological apparatus of the theater was able to make the audience experience the terror of the sounds of bombs raining down on us (imaginatively), and I will make time to read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (to Tipperary, Booker Prize winner) and Pat Barker’s (much beprized) Regeneration. I’ve got to get myself to read in French with the English translation as a crib, Sebastian Japrisot’s A Long Long Engagement (the title Un Long dimacnche de fiancailles Englished). I’ve got to get myself to return to my French. I’ve missed it and my Italian readings for too many years.

Ian keeping me company the other day — yes that’s Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton scotch-taped on my wall. He was my favorite actor when I was 13-15. Near him Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet gazing meditatively at an English northern landscape …

I even have two New Year’s Resolutions which should be easy to keep.

I have decided we will not take our cats on separate bi-annual trips to have their nails clipped. It is just to stressful for all involved. If we have to take them for immunity injections, for advised wellness check-ups, then I’ll ask that their nails be clipped: they do tear my skin when they jump, and Ian gets his entangled. This time Ian didn’t notice quickly enough to flee to a place we couldn’t reach him to put him in his carrier quickly, but Clary did and I had to yell to make her jump out of a space, and then there was grabbing and forcing her into the carrier. He cried all the way there, while there and back and paced like a tiger in the carrier, but he did not seem that upset when we got home. A little cuddling and routine resumed and he was coming back to himself. She, however, ran and hid. When she came out she hissed at me when I came near at first, gradually she sat in my lap, but I had to be careful, the slightest untoward sound and she was off like rapid light; she hissed and snarled at poor Ian all afternoon; only in the evening was she willing to let him lay beside her. Today still she has lost her sense of security and cat understanding of my love for her. She and I have now become so close; if Ian has become Cookie, an altered sociable cat (part of this paradoxically how he growls as anyone comes up the path), she and I have become tenderly loving friends. She cannot understand that I could do this. So I must limit such scenes to the minimum possible.

And next year I’ll keep the trees inside and outside Christmas-y until Twelfth Night. Why not? In my neighborhood people keep their lights up into the 2nd week of January. One man who every year puts lights on an enormous tree and does it for the neighborhood keeps his lit until Burns’ night. This way the poor plant (tree) which gives up its life so much earlier than it should (they can live for so long) will not be wantonly bought quite as much. I’ll look for a slightly larger one in the hope it’ll drink its water.

As for Winter, we have had three days of it thus far: bright blue sky, frigid temperatures in the morning and night, in the middle of the day warming up some. But all but the last two days it’s been he new winter in a mid-Atlantic state on the east coast of the US. It’s a mild season, lots of rain, sky often dark, sometimes gets very warm, usually dank in the morning but when the sun comes out quite balmy. Some days have this real chill and nip in the air and night can be quite cold. Like living in a ghost story. It’s not warm enough for plants to come out, but they get confused and seem to begin the process and then give up. Flowers may still be seen and leaves too from fall hanging on bushes and trees …

The worst part is my house’s heating system is structured on the assumption of real cold. When it’s not true Winter cold outside, the heat does not go on. If I put up the thermostat to force this heat to come out of the grates (say 74 fahrenheit), it becomes too hot in here, so I turn the thermostat down. Too stuffy. So I open the windows. Then it’s too cold. My clothes are also not quite appropriate for this new season. People will say these are minor nuisances. Proper Winter is a deadly threatening difficult time no matter how beautiful, soothing, with quietude to my eye looking out my window:

Camille Pissarro, Winter Road, Sun and Snow (1869-70).

And so they are, but not for everyone is climate change something easily adjustable to. For some it is destroying their homes, their livelihood, sometimes it can kill them or people near them.

In last week’s Talk of the Town in the New Yorker Zora O’Neill said as how the ski business and hockey on iced-over ponds are not doing so well, but the people who make, service and know about steam heat are still thriving. The Hold-Over Dept describes immense boiler steam radiators, the subject of a lecture and many other concerned people attended. It made me remember an apartment I lived in with my parents in Kew Gardens (say 1958?). Deep in the bowels of the building was one of these giant noisy contraptions; my father and I would go down there and watch. Fast forward — or rewind — I also remembered my British in-laws’ fireplaces: when I first met them ten years (but in terms of life’s experience a life) later, in their parlor one of these used coals: dirty, and not as pretty as a wood fire, it radiated a helluva lot of heat. Coal is still making enormous sums for the 1% (maybe a slightly larger number) and occasioning much misery for the feebly unionized (unions now very weak in case you haven’t noticed it and the Fed gov’t has given oversight to the wolves) i.e.g, those work hard and long in the mines; and steam heat people still tend enormous radiators in more places in NYC and unexpected ones than you might suppose — like the Empire State Building.

Memories. That’s what this ritual time brings. A thoughtful review in a recent (December 11, 2015) issue of TLS by Richard Smyth in a recent TLS, December 11, 2015, on what appears to be an excellent book by Alexandra Harris. Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies: no one appears to notice by writing down the weather of daily life until the 18th century when the teleological frame of existence vanished. Not that they were not aware of the influence of weather:

Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius (1677) — just look at what the individual people and pairs are variously doing

What I did this year? I discovered Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, saw it perhaps for the first time. I felt such deep satisfaction as I learned about 11 women artists, read books about them. The books I remember best from reading is Jenny Diski’s What I don’t know about Animals and Apology for the Woman Writing. The book I was stirred by again and again from Simon Slater’s reading, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Favorite cinema movies: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, and Mr. Holmes; favorite mini-series Wolf Hall and Danger UXB.

The right side of my body has become so weak that I’m now going twice a week to a class called Body Strengthening at the Jewish Community Center. Over 40 people in large auditorium follow Paula for an hour doing mild exercise (including dance, stretching, pressing with barbells and stretch rubber, using a ball), all to music. It reminds me of those rare times in high school (1961?) when I and the girls in the “small gym” (disabled, pregnant, pulled out of the main group for all sorts of reasons) joined the girls in the large gym for large patterned marching-dancing. In our end is our beginning (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

And so I enter a third year of life without him. I continue to observe how much each day of existence brings of quiet small changes slowly happening he is not here to know with me.


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