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:
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
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:
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:
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.