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It must’ve been in the mid-1990s that I came to the conclusion that Gwen Ifill would make a better US president than any candidate I had seen since I began to vote, and certainly better on what was on offer that year. The thought occurred to me regularly because at the time we regularly watched the PBS Newshour, with Jim Lehrer as the anchor and she as a chief correspondent (the titles they used). A memory comes back to me of Laura visiting a friend at this time, voicing shock that the family did not turn on this news program (these were arch-conservative people who I assume voted for Trump this time), and coming home to tell me they had laughed about this. “Not everyone watches PBS reports” they had said.

She died today of endometrial cancer, age 61. Apparently she had been sick for over a year.

As you can see I feel a kind of personal connection with Ifill (different from but analogous to my feeling about Jenny Diski, also destroyed by cancer), so choose to put this as part of my life-writing. It is, though, now also political, more in the vein of what I write on my first Sylvia blog nowadays. On such a bleak desolating day (where we can see how what we have is a hollow pretense of democracy), it seemed to me to keep spirits up not to be cowed and offer some effective force against the coming racist fierce militarist capitalism (a gov’t which will crush civil liberties even more than they have been!) now being put in place, let us remember her life and work.

I was reassured about the PBS Newshour tonight too because they devoted most of their hour to her. I have been disappointed and at times dismayed by the lack of rigorous questioning and truth-telling about Trump, the failure of Judy Woodruff as a woman to “call out” (as it’s articulated) Shields and Brooke for their equating Trump’s corruption and fascism with Hillary Clinton’s atttempt to keep her emails private, for their sexism; the worst moment was Paul Salmon’s shameful disrespectful tone towards David Kay Johnston while interviewing him on his thoroughly-researched exposure of Trump’s business practices, The Making of Donald Trump. Tonight for the first time I am aware how often Gwen Ifill was not there. In these last few years she had become more bland, more discreet, reined in the acute thinking mind of the earlier years: PBS is so dependent on corporate sponsors. So I didn’t miss her as much as I would have when she was merely a memorable part of a team questioning and talking or an on-the-spot reporter.

But I remembered and knew what she was capable of delivering and still did deliver in interviews from time to time. She projected and was a strong presence in her role of moderator, facilitator in recent years and I just enjoyed the line-up of segments she and Judy Woodruff produced together. It seemed to me a woman’s news hour of serious news, far better in scope, in what was understood and shown to be important than almost any other (a sole exception is another woman’s news program, Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org). Precisely because it was a woman’s show they chose Malcolm Brabant on refugees, Fred de Sam Lazaro on the marginalized of the world, always showing how the intimate small experience is large political and affects us all.

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with Judy Woodruff on their show together

Two panels, some tapes of reminiscent, and excerpts from an appreciation of Ifill comprised the beautiful tribute. I was much moved listening to those who had been helped in their careers, whom she worked with, whom she knew for many years in her private life. Charlene Hunter-Gault began to tear up more than once, Judy was unsteady and towards the end Hari Svrinavasin called her his mentor. It felt especially important to voice all this and present the worlds she came from, belonged to, and those she reported before because soon (before long now, January 20th to be precise), we seem headed to have media dominated by repression of all but fascistic points of view. That she lived and worked with the ideals she did should cheer us, even if her ending reveals much more emphatically than other parts of her existence, how we are are subject to the results of little ameliorated capitalism:

She was another victim to the cancer pandemic: and I feel a personal connection tonight because I can discern in the pattern of her behavior in this last year a paradigm like my husband’s: in summer she was off-the-air, said to have had a serious operation, after a considerable recovery period, she was back and looked strong, but only for one season, the she suddenly disappeared and in what felt like no time, was dead in a hospice. Like Jim, she had the show of force in a drastic operation, and then shortly after recovering, the cancer re-appeared in vital organ and devoured her.

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With her sister, Sherrilyn, Ifill

Her book was The Break Through: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

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I was strengthened and consoled by the truth-telling of two more presences on the Internet. The first, a poem by Adrienne Rich, written

What Kind of Times Are These
By Adrienne Rich

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
    uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t
    be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

nor

The other the consolatory voice of retreat, Garrison Keillor’s “I’ll sit back and wait.”. What is most valuable in his words is his saying firmly Trump is the candidate of those who whooped it up for cruelty, ignorance and bald-faced stupidity. Especially cruelty (“by your 20s, you should be done with cruelty”): that was what was repeated across his most hooting jeering withering derision — of the disabled, of women, of people who grieving for the death of a son in a (colonialist) war, pensioned veterans (weak), the list is long and I need not take us through it. This was funny until he got to “deport the undocumented” (it is too much like Hitler that Trump’s first planned presidential order is to deport millions of hispanics):

Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long, brisk walk and smell the roses.

What we who have voted for this party have now to do is spend four years pressuring for a re-invention of this democratic party into a body of people who respond to what their constituency wants and needs. I agree with Glen Greenwald on the Democratic Party self-destructing itself. In one of his last speeches before conceding the nomination to Clinton, Sanders said this election was about an impoverished woman (maybe he said on food stamps) struggling to bring up her children.

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On election day I was in my local supermarket and had had on a real line in front of me a latino woman with two young children. Her meat was in plastic bags. Huge bags of dried vegetables. Well it was time to pay and she pulled out food stamps. Alas, it appeared that she had pulled the wrong product from some shelf and taken a bigger of whatever than was coming to her — 3 such wrong-size bags. These food stamps are very tricky; you are allowed to buy only certain specified products. The manager had to come over to settle the dispute (as there was a sign and she had an ad saying this product was for sale for food stamps), and then Linda (the checker, a kind hearted long term employee) was helping her dismantle her cart. On the other side of me a tough-looking (in her face) woman with blonde hair (clearly dyed), in jeans, looked very mad. Need I say she had a Trump t-shirt? So I said, “I think we ought to have a National Holiday to vote. All states stay open until 9. Everyone then could do it easily.” I do think that. She glared at me and was about to erupt with angry comments, when the manager sent another checker to open another register and make the long line of people vanish. This young woman cannot access any money through the welfare system that she could then use for her family in the best ways possible for them.

That woman with her food stamps is but for Jim me. I will now return to support Bernie Sanders.

But for now, tonight, we can remember Gwen Ifill and think of the good she managed to do, embody, and encourage others to achieve. It is necessary to talk about trees, real as well as metaphoric.

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David Lohenberg, Gwen Ifill

Miss Drake

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Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …
Henry King, after the death of his beloved wife, his “matchless friend”

“the poet” announced this past Thursday morning on twitter “my darling Jenny @diski has died — perhaps in his arms

Dear friends and readers,

I have just heard the news that Ted Cruz has dropped out of the presidential race; there is no one on the Republican side to stop the coming catastrophe if Trump should win the presidency. Thus it seems tastelessly solipsistic for me to carry on with my calendar diary, each time a few experiences I’ve had,this time since mid-April — without first acknowledging we live under the shadow of a possible social breakdown as a paranoiac and bankrupted state (considering the threatened lawless commercial and totalitarian tactics and tax cuts for the wealthy Trump plans), not to omit nuclear catastrophe. The moral disaster has been with us for a long while; it began a new phase at the time of 9/11. It’s so worrying as Hillary Clinton is so weak with voters: consider her “New College Compact:” lower costs for students, expand Obamacare, family leave, veterans and child services, a surtax on the very wealthy, rates on capital gains, change the immigrant system carefully — all thought out — then Sanders beats her in Indiana.

But what I am to do? I excuse myself with Voltaire’s advice from Candide, ou l’optimisme: like Gorey who has his Mr Earbrass close the curtains, with the crippled Cunegone, he gathers what is left (he has not lost all his sheep), to live on with the exhortation: “il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

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Is not Lily James somehow exquisitely appealing in this photograph (from my desk calendar for this week)

The good news I told about on my Austen reveries blog that my proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; has been accepted for the coming Chawton House Library conference and my edition of the novel will be out by later this summer has begun to keep me busy. I’ve begun reading away Smith’s letters, on Scottish literature, and Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, a Scottish-English novels which shows the same strains, implicitly international or global and post-colonialist perspective, with an accent on women’s issues found in Ethelinde, and (to allude to my paper last fall) Anne Grant and Anne Hunter’s poetry and prose. I carried on with my women artists blogs (Angelica Kauffman to be specific), Constance Fenimore Woolson (I find the tone of her mind deeply congenial). The course I gave on Making Barsetshire at the AU OLLI came to an end; the people applauded me and were very kind; it was really friendly the last day so that felt good, and to tell the truth, I thought about how Trollope came to make this sub-genre to create a commercially successful career for himself than I had the first time I taught these three books. I gave a first lecture on Austen’s Lady Susan, guest invited at NOVA (this is stuff for a full separate blog). I’ve another two sessions on Gaskell’s profound North and South — it’s l’ecriture-femme structure, deep melancholy sustaining me. I would not have looked for these teaching satisfactions and the worlds I’ve become acquainted with were Jim here.

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A thank you card I received from the AU OLLI people

Good moments this time have been as much at home as in theaters, auditoriums, and someone’s house (!).

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Calling themselves the Rusticway Chamber Music Series

New experiences. Sunday afternoon (5/1) I went to thoroughly delightful (charming was a good word, tasteful) concert which my friend Phyllis told me about and drove me to. It was two men (Robert Petillo and Alex Hassan) who have not that much fame but highly gifted professional artists who’ve had long careers and played in European concert houses, Festivals around the world, in a woman’s house set up for these kinds of concerts, a series organized by the local community — upper middle class people in a kind of select place called “Lake Barcroft.” It felt like a 21st century variant of private concerts in 19th century genteel homes. Complete with a garden outside, wine and an edible cake-bread and conversation inside afterward. I was struck by one comment: someone asked Mr Hassan if he needed the scores to play; Mr Petillo said the sheet music was for popular use and thus very simplified. I knew what we had heard were varied intricate melodies all intertwined, melodious. How hard it is to get anything serious in this world; you have to train yourself in the initial stages and then look out for the rare serious text of whatever it is. The music played had been mostly the kind of music played in Gosford Park, 1930s and 40s Tin Pan Alley songs (“You oughta be in pictures,” “Youre’ the Cream in my Coffee,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” a couple of Handel’s songs, songs from musicals of the era, long forgotten — brilliantly played by Hassan as virtuoso pianist, so touching and warm, with Petillo the Irish tenor type, Handelian by training. I put my name down on the mailing list and could drive there on my own. I bought a DVD of British 1930s and 40s songs I like.

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Charlotte Bronte’s traveling desk

Old. We went the Northern Virginia Library book sale together once again, found a couple of treasures. Thursday evening (4/28). The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry for me — superb poetry, I am astonished at how good they are, translations excellent, editor J.D. McClatchy. We went separately to museums. I went to the Smithsonian the next night (4/29) for the best lecture I’ve heard thus far: Deborah Lutz out of her book, The Bronte Cabinet, encountering the Brontes through what was left after death, how they themselves saved bits of one another’s hair, relics, papers. The depths of opening yourself to death, of religious sensibilities, pre-photographic era. Body wants that evening: I had to leave too early to eat, so by the time I got home I feel weak with hunger for supper. I cook for myself a bowl of farfalle, heat sauce. throw on ketchup, with glass of shiraz, better than Noodles and Company. Saturday we saw our last HD opera, Elektra (also must have separate blog). I had picked Izzy up to come with me when I had my hair dyed and cut to have her hair trimmed and for the first time ever she allowed the women to cut her hair more so now it’s trimmed beautifully — it’s still long but like a bow and looks beautiful brushed, and with a ribbon across her head. She took her trip to the museum of American history looking like that, and told me all about an exhibit over Sunday supper.

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Returning. I’ve begun journey back to Shakespeare I hope to continue. It began with the birthday — Izzy and I went to the Folger on the 23rd to see The Lost First Play of Shakespeare (by the Reduced Shakespeare Company) . ..

ReducedShakespeare
Austin Tichenor, Teddy Spenser, Reed Martin

I enjoyed the abridged group and this is a different or new 3 hours of “fun with Shakespeare.” The one I saw years ago was very like the Fringe theater one or Stoppard’s play. The idea was rapidity and to make fun of the typical way a Shakespeare play feels, how the language is hard for some, and the whole hysterical kind of mood (Voltaire noticed this a while back), the wild melancholy, the coincidences and so on. Plays focused on where the (to modern audiences) strange history plays, the wild tragedies. Now the idea is they’ve found Shakeseare’s lost first play. To some extent they are doing the same thing but not quite. They hardly include the history plays and little of the tragedies — prime fodder for the older type. Instead they try to tell a story combining Ariel and Puck as rivals, with bringing in so many characters and lines from across the plays. The fun was to recognize the original lines and see them displaced, revamped, put in new contexts, with now and again one of the actors did a speech from a play seriously bringing out (to me) the original thought and deep feeling. I’m not sure it worked, at moments they were tedious (to me); they didn’t seem to know when to have done lest they not have given us our money’s worth of inspired silliness, but they had a warm-hearted spirit and they honored Shakespeare thoroughly by the ending.

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Ben Whislaw as Richard II (how can he compete with David Morrisey as a brutal Northumberland, Rory Kinnear a wily enimgmatic Bolingbroke)

I did feel I had attended a sort of travesty so I told myself it’s about time I watched my 4 DVDs of Hollow Crown. So that evening I had two and a half more hours: Richard II was beautifully well done and lovingly with attention to detail, depth psychology, scenic designs in perfectly appropriate places (the churches, landscape, rooms) — what struck me and why I’m writing this is the film seemed to be a descendent of the 1972 War and Peace. It is vivifying to see the BBC can still do this — and they did it for Wolf Hall. The elaborate art has changed, there is more symbolism but essentially it was very like and in its likeness was its strength. Many great actors. David Bradley as the allegorical gardener superb. And my favorite Lindsay Duncan was there as the Duchess of York, the vignette of the family life with Suchet as the Duke hardly having any feel for his wife, despising his wife, she too despising their son, but fighting for his life frantically as he is all they have. Ben Whislaw as Richard II’s speeches at the close reminded me of how Shakespeare himself speaks to us through this character. I had forgotten how Shakespeare’s deep depressive insights and radical pouring of himself into his characters began so early.

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First shot of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess, a moment of still hope as she turns to look at her son

Then Henry IV Part 1 this past Saturday night: what was remarkable was how realistically they did it, it was not over-produced or over-acted and they spoke the lines as one would ordinary talk. I had never seen anyone try to dramatize what a 13th century battle was like: as vicious as Culloden’s 18th century distraught destruction and our own bombing and fueled horrors today. Simone Beale’s Falstaff”s nihilism to Julie Walters’s much put-upon sentimental Mistress Quickly was pitch perfect. But I learned too — how hard both Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston on the battlefield as Hal played it replicated the heartless ruthlessness of life. How early on Shakespeare rejected the cold manipulative performer and saw how the passion-ridden person is deeply at risk — Worcester keeps from Hotspur Henry IV’s offer to reconcile, Hal’s to have a one-on-one honorable combat to end the day. I was especially moved by Joe Armstrong playing Hotspur to Michelle Dockery’s Kate (son of Alun, who appropriately played Northumberland, Hotspur’s father). As it used to in reading, their wild love and ironies reminded me of Jim and I when young; I remembered Hal’s mockery spoken so swiftly by Hiddlestone as one throws away a joke, but he said it all and yet I cared not what happened in the junkyard of what did not matter when I was young too.

hotspurkatemediumshot

hotspurkate
Medium and then close up

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air …
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

How better can one pass one’s hours than comforting the self with imaginative truth. I love Shakespeare. I once hoped to do my dissertation on Cymbeline. I’ve read all the plays, some several times, lines from the sonnets run through my head. I taught R2 once, Hamlet once, and Winter’s Tale (a favorite) 3 times. So for me this past Monday night even the popularly conceived Shakespeare Live! on my BBC iplayer was mostly compelling. I had never heard Shakespeare’s speech for Sir Thomas More before: when Ian McKellen said it’s hime and then did it I knew. The words to the cruel idiot mob bent on destroying the stranger immigrants could be said of those voting for Trump today. A ballet of Othello and Desdemona was revelatory of male violence and female shattering. Harriet Walter enacting Cleopatra’s suicide to come nearer Anthony. My favorite Marie-Anne Duff as Lady Macbeth and (again) Rory Kinnear as Macbeth just come from the murder scene. Yet as Anne Elliot says the deep wretchedness and letting go of the self in mutual passion went through my body until I writhed in missing Jim. Paradoxically I grow more wretched, more desperate at night than I ever did before. He is gone and what makes it not a dream is all I am surrounded by, my solvency, the life he has provided for me.

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Elie-Daniel-Berrigan-Postscript
Daniel Berrigan around the time of 9/11 when he commented on what had happened

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A younger Jenny, recalling her book smoking through America on a train

More good people gone. Daniel Berrigan at age 94. How that man’s noble soul seems so out of place today.

I have in my house a book of poems by Berrigan, which I can see Jim read, but I’ll chose a less religious one, by Patrizia Cavalli (from my New Vintage Poetry Book) as it is about coping with the death, the loss of a beloved friend:

Now that time seems all mine
and no one calls mefor lunch or dinner,
now that I can stay to watch
how a cloud loosens and loses its color,
how a cat walks on the roof
in the immense luxury of a prowl, now
that what waits for me every day
is the unlimited length of a night
where there is no call and no longer a reason
to undress in a hurry to rest inside
the blinding sweetness of a body that waits for me,
now that the morning no longer has a beginning
and silently leaves me to my plans,
to all the cadences of my voice, now …
— translated by Judith Baumel

And Jenny Diski passed through her agon.

And what do you think, that I couldn’t see you
die around a corner …. if I really think about your death
in whatever house, hotel or hospital bed,
in whatever street, perhaps in air
about your eyes that surrender
to the invasion: about the ultimate terrible lie
with what you will want to repulse the attack ….
what will survive you
well then, how can I let you go away
— Cavalli trans Baumel

I was expecting it. I had noticed that more LRBs had gone by without her than usual. I had told myself, she must be very ill now, near the end. When a friend emailed me to tell me I cried on and off that morning. I felt her to be an intimate friend, almost. I loved her essays, travel writing, the novels, her book on animals. She spoke up for the vulnerable, the lonely, those who felt and acted differently from many, and for the depressed — as far as I read, she seemed almost never to think cant (well once in a while). I first encountered her in the LRB in a diary entry telling the full truth about when she was raped at age 14. It stayed with me because she was more accurate about how assaults happen: first she did go back with the man to his flat. As I grow more aware of how much my cats are reacting to me, how much they understand, I want to tell her Bundy was waiting for you. I’ve written at length about her too often. Tributes from The Guardian and Tim Adams’s memory of her and the last columns. Robert Laird in the Paris Review characterizes how we now die in the world through the Net and her characteristic tone and stances so well.

Her last gift to us was to tell us blow-by-blow of her experience of cancer. How few do this. Here was courage.

MIrandaTEmpest
J. Waterhouse, Miranda looking out at the tempest

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Remembering

On this beautiful autumn day, with its cool chilled air warmed by the sun, the beautifully colored leaves, just falling, the autumn flowers, I remembered how Jim said to me one day in September “I’m sorry to leave you.” He meant he was sorry to have to leave me alone in the world in the sense that he and looked at, saw the world from the same perspective, and our reaction to us, had been just the same.

And so this morning I share YouTube (unadulterated) of Lyle Lovett singing Closing Time which Jim liked too:

Sylvia

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DangerUXB
From Danger UXB (one of the great anti-war mini-series)

This is the anniversary of Jim’s dying two years ago. He has lost the ability to speak back as of October 7th and on October 8th he was beginning that terrible ordeal/agon of literally dying.

I feel I’m living through these days for a third time: the first two years ago, as he lay dying; the second last year when somehow I kept the sense of it all at a distance; and now:

On October 3rd this year when Jim would have been 67 I felt how uncanny it is that he is not here, how weird is death in comparison to how we feel about someone’s existence. We have to feel deeply that the person we are attached to has deep reality, and yet they are no more than 98?% water (as I’ve read in different places). I felt haunted the way I had for a time after my father died. Then it was the irretrievably of never being able to make contact again, and I felt such a strong desire to I projected psychologically a presence hiding somewhere, invisible, silent.

It’s not like that for Jim. I have this sense of the unbelievability of existence itself. I can hardly believe I am here concretely if he’s not. I don’t know why I don’t vanish away softly in the night — like one of Lewis Carroll’s mad figures — if he could so vanish.

I’d call such feelings are one of the origins of religious belief. Tonight we would have been married 46 years, met 47 years ago.

I remember Shakespeare’s lines as Prospero: we are such things as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep.

And also that 90th sonnet: Do not drop in for an afterloss … in the onset come; so shall I know the very worst … which compared to loss of thee will not seem so

Jenny Diski’s latest entry as she moves into death is devastating. Her cancer is for now (what a sardonic joke in such words) in remission, for how long (ditto) the doctors can’t say (as they know nothing). Like the heroine in Wit, she is dying in immiseration because of the effect of the treatments on her, her lungs gone, she has (like Hilary Mantel) been made to look awful so that she is alienated from her body. at once feeble, unable to walk steadily and fat. Why should she care say the heartless neat doctors and nurses. She opens with talking of letters she has received; I was almost tempted to write. We learn in this one she has two grandchildren and we know the father of her daughter, once her partner-husband died a couple of years ago. So her daughter parentless.

People have asked me (well one person) what is gained by telling of Doris and me, well the same thing that is gained by her telling of these dreadful symptoms, her pain, her feebleness, how others will not help except for the Poet. Insofar as you can stop people from mouthing nonsense about triumphs, conquests, and bravery and instead tell what cancer is, you help a little in the pressure to do fundamental research. The research that is done is expensive surgery to prolong life and pills that cost huge sums — all garnering profit. What they discover fundamentally is a bye-product and not much sought. The TTP was signed yesterday: a key provision fought over was the US on behalf of the pharmaceuticals (like the fascist gov’t it is) to give them the right to charge outrageously for 5-8 years; 12 was what was wanted and the “balance” is it’s just 6-8 and uncountable thousands excluded because of the price at least until then.

I omit all the provisions which supercede workers’ rights and hand a good deal of the world over to corporations (with military backing) to exploit and immiserate everyone who is not in the elite genuinely rich and well connected.

Cancer is our great and ever spreading plague — like the engineered (in effect) famines and mass diseases of early times — India, Ireland. Settler colonialism now exterminating the Palestinians a little at a time — punctuated by the terror of lethal bombing.

Diski speaks for us all — she says don’t talk about bravery so instead I’ll say she writes what she does because she cannot help herself and thinks truth has a function in the world that helps others– if only by saying see here I am, is this the way you are? if so, we are not alone.

JennyDiski
Diski (before cancer)

She does say it’s hard not to feel what’s happening to her is a punishment — like it’s hard not to feel the death and disappearance of someone is uncanny. But what it’s vital to remember is not to take what happens ever as a punishment. That is your psyche doubling in on itself and wanting to find some reason, some ultimate meaning for what is happening. For me not comfort, but that way madness lies.

Miss Drake

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“Co-terminous”

Time is killing more of us more swiftly:
since time is become cancer,
cancer moves in to the beat of time itself.

It’s now
Look down and see what cancer is doing
Paulina’s line re-booted

As our air and food, straight chemicals
directly imbibed,
become ever-more polluted,
addictive —

“I am afraid to stop the pills …”
Says one unhappy soul
even if they have such side-effects.

Psychiatrists once soul-healers
deal out body altering chemicals
record-keepers for NSAs, DMVs

It becomes a matter of time
The pollution slowly eats us up —
Bloats us — Corrosive

How many years does this or that cancer
give this or that person. Ninety? 51? Ten?
That is the new question.

Miss Drake

MedievalPeopleonFish
For a 21st century Book of Hours

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On Yvette’s journey by Metro to the 2015 Japanese Stone Lantern Lighting Ceremony, she snapped this photo with her cell phone at the Reagan National Airport stop

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve counted four daffodils and three crocuses. They have come up out of the ground from the small plots I made that first year Jim was retired. I take no responsibility for their persistence. Since we had such a astonishingly cold February into March, in reality the flowering trees were rare today.

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A photo Yvette took at the above Lighting Ceremony — the birds were there and that’s an early spring sky

In our neighborhood (called Clover) the only ones flowered were the very young; the tulip tree that hangs over my window has flowered on part of one side, and it looks like 3/4s will not make it. We had high winds yesterday and a couple of days of rain. Yvette said the ceremony was lovely; there was a good speech by a Japanese clergyman (I’ll call him), and music.

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Jim and I used to observe Easter-time, spring, an equinox by going, most of the time with Yvette, to point-to-point races about an hour or more drive away into middle Virginia. It’s breeding time for the foxes so the elite hunting clubs host races, and the hoi polloi (like our small family) were invited to come too, and there would be bookies and tents of items to buy (I bought a big hat a couple of times), food. Sometimes the day would coincide with Easter or Passover, but not always. I’d come home exhausted from a long day’s outing. I remember Caroline came once and she bet with Jim (I’m not much on betting, my US working class background prohibits any enjoyment of this), but most years he’d bet alone with me looking on and sometimes chosing “our horse,” so we would have a horse & jockey we were “rooting” for and watch. We’d take his father’s indestructible binoculars, which his mother gave us after his father died of cancer. I remember the NYC festivals we’d join in on too.

How do identities form? A lecture I went to on Friday night, the Washington Area Print Group’s monthly meeting at the Library of Congress prompts me to see this previous existence of mine and Yvette’s trip to DC to join in a local public ceremony as a matter of having an identity one can see oneself in. Vanessa Harding, a professor of history at Birbeck College, University of London, is spending a couple of months at the Folger Shakespeare library researching a learned 17th century book collector, and chronicler, Richard Smythe (1590-1670). Her research is into early modern London and published book is The Dead and Living in Paris and London (1500-16770) and she told us about the social and cultural world of this man as projected by his collection of books, his annotations in them, his unpublished papers (which he kept in the form of little booklets) and a published Obituary (list of all the people who died and how,from the famous and notorious to the children of his friends) during his life. Prof Harding is just now developing a project with the Historic Towns Trust to map London on the eve of the Great Fire of 1666. So you can see she is interested in the larger city Smythe lived in.

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Stowe’s Survey of London, mapping

She held her audience’s interest all she was able to say of this obscure man (he never signed anything), and how his (in effect) scrapbooks carefully preserved contributed to a wider urban consciousness while that developing urban consciousness experienced in ceremonies (like the one Yvette attended and those she used to go to with Jim and I) sustained him. Prof Harding’s descriptions of these stitched together booklets, with their inserted pages, and portraits reminded me of descriptions of Renaissance women’s manuscripts to Jane Austen’s. He had a vast library for someone of this period (could she have said 2000? or was it 8000?), and was known by other book collectors, sellers, learned and scientific people (acknowledged in some central sources); he was a polemicist for the Church of England (Anglican, and this during the interregnum too), and used books like Stowe’s Survey of London (1720, a massive folio edition), Fuller’s church history. Smythe was writing London’s history, which had a diverse rapidly changing population during his long lifetime. His personal contribution is that of a bibliographer (he left lists of books), of a corrector of misinformation. He was a socially gregarious man who was able to spend his time with like-minded men. Off he would go to Little Britain to look at books (St Paul’s became a center for book selling later). She talked of her frustrations over what he does not tell: he never described his library (by contrast, Pepys tells us he had modular bookcases). She was able to tell us of his wife, Elizabeth, whom he was married to for 44 years, a widowed daughter who he lived with in his last years and inherited his library. his sister-in-law became important to him after his wife’s death; he mentions other women friends. She told of how there were more records of him in St Giles, Cripplegate, but they were destroyed in WW2.

As usual with me now I went with the group to dinner afterward, a nearby Thai place and the talk was good. Two people who are regulars are mounting an exhibition of Lewis Carroll books and memorabilia (we are talking 4700 items they own in their own library). The central field of research for one of the organizers of this group, Sabrina, is the early to mid-17th century and book history. The talk veered into university gossip and we talked of what is happening in Britain and the US to universities today, about online sites for research. I mentioned Future Learn and asked how much pressure there was for university academics and staff to participate in these online MOOCs, to get credit for being involved in communities. I probably drank too much or didn’t eat enough (pain in dentures prevents eating much), and going home alone I ended crying bitterly for Jim.

I was glad this morning that Easter has remained a religious holiday (and passover too) and is not made into insistently public group rejoicing. I thought I’d bring spring in by staying longer in bed, and began Rumer Godden’s “middle brow” “woman’s novel” (both no-nos), China Court, a deeply felt evocation thus far of a house through the memories of an old woman who has just died, and those of her close servant, Cecily. Set in Cornwall. Books like this provide peace.

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Clarycat this past Wednesday, photo taken by Caroline who came over to download Episode 4 of the BBC 2015 Poldark

My schedule had kept me very busy all week. Friday morning I had been to the JCC for Dance Fusion and Core, I taught (and think it went very well) at the two OLLIS, AU and Mason, Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza, and Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, respectively. Monday was especially wearing as I went into DC twice, the second time to watch an HD screening of a truly interesting production of Love’s Labor’s Lost done in Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Christopher Luscombe’s production, featuring Richard Bennet as Berowne and Benedick, and Michelle Terry as Rosaline and Beatrice). I hope to go again tomorrow after teaching and see Love’s Labor’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing) which my experience of Future Learn has shown me will be powerful; I did not realize that it was paired with an unusual production of Love’s Labor’s lost; I mean to write a blog on this pairing by Tuesday (strength holding out). Would I be doing any of this if he were here? maybe not. He might have found the HD production of these two plays; that’s the sort of thing he looked out for. A friend who is semi-retired told me of how he and his wife go kayaking in Florida for a couple of weeks of February. We never had a chance to evolve a retired life together, different from the one we had endured and enjoyed as working people together.

Nonetheless, I found time late at night to watch all three 2 hour episodes of Ken Burn’s Cancer: the Empire of all Maladies, which appears to have been based on Pulitzer Prize winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee who appeared in the film as a explanatory narrator. It was not as bad as I feared it might be. I did cry for the first hour and had a hard time watching it now and again, but although (as these shows did) it focused on the few people who lived because of these horrific treatments, and its outline was that of a story of progress, it told a tale of dysfunctional knowledge. Yes human beings have gone from knowing nothing and being able to do nothing about any cancer, to knowing a lot of details about specific manifestations (kinds of cancer) and having unpredictable ever-more narrowly targeted treatments where some people can be saved. Hard economic topics were avoided — like the use of devastating surgeries. And no individual groups were blamed. It was generally that prices are well beyond the means of many; that pollution is playing a major role. But at the close of the first two hours it was insisted that we do not know fundamentally what makes a cell turn cancerous. I learned what the mass mainstream media says about cancer. Meanwhile I read stories daily about people dying: a friend’s 10 year old niece died after she was first diagnosed at age 6. Unfortunate lovely child. Her photo appeared and story was told in a local Italian newspaper. Oliver Sacks tells of his embolization of his liver cancer (he is dying, NYRB April 23, 2015 issue); I read the increasingly poignant story told by Jenny Diski as she faces death from lung cancer. She has kept up a stages diary (LRB, 9 April 2015): how do you go about imagining your death? can you?

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Jenny Diski a couple of years ago

After watching this determinedly upbeat presentation where all was done contradicted what Atul Gawande had said of not giving people false hope which drives them to make their last months miserable through torturous procedures (and Marcia Angell’s review of Being Mortal), but to tell them their prognosis so they can decide what they want to do with their last months, I wondered to myself after all, can people enjoy their last four months if they are told they are going to die? Look at Diski. She can’t forget it. Look at how Sacks is putting himself through such a horror of pain, himself a doctor. I wondered to myself if Jim had not been given false hope, would he have had the strength to enjoy a trip away or would he have ever wondered if he had tried, he would have had more life? he was extraordinarily patient in that last two weeks, brave, silent mostly, kind to me. What were his thoughts? I fear that he went for the surgery because he had decided he would not have been able to enjoy a trip away — probably though it was the false hope of five more years. Yvette at breakfast told me of a classic Japanese film, Ikiru, where a man is told he has only a few months to live and tries to do what he enjoys to experience a last happiness. He cannot. Daily life with others and his own dread will not permit this. What can he do with his last time alive. He conceives of a plan to make a meaningful contribution — to build a playground. What troubles and vexations he goes through to achieve this. The film seems to end with the playground built and him sitting on one of the swings and in flashbacks remembering back. The wikipedia article makes these last memories into something more peaceful than they are; but they do compensate. They kept him busy with a hope of some form of useful immortality. Yvette and I talked of our desire to have what we write on Net saved. I know many people talk of carrying on in their children and make do with that. I’ve put Ikiru on my Netflix queue as next.

I’ve made a proposal to teach Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones next fall at the OLLI at AU. I realize I cannot do a second new course again and also a paper on Trollope for the Belgium conference and teach Framley Parsonage in summer. So I will offer to do the two Poldark novels at Mason in the fall. If that won’t do, sobeit. The next spring I’d love to work up a course on Gaskell’s North and South but it must wait. I am doing these courses for my own enjoyment of study and learning too.

I keep getting thinner. Eating a problem. Gum ache and a dull hard pain: either one of my eyeteeth has now gone bad, or my jaw is sore from my denture and I can’t bite down. Now there’s not only, Can I bring myself to eat it? There’s, Am I successful at eating it? I have to wait until Friday to see the dentist. My clothes drop off me; my trousers grow longer, past my shoes. Bad moments: Thursday morning 3 viruses invaded my computer; within 2 minutes of my contacting him, my hero, my IT guy, Jonathan, had come into my computer by remote control and “quarantined them,” uninstalled Yahoo (the portal was the culprit) and after 3 hours of scrutiny, declared the computer fine, reinstalled Yahoo and I could be at peace again.

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) — at beginning of long sequence just after they marry

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At close after pilchard episode, death of Charles, Christmas

I had one insight important to me this week in teaching the Poldark books and watching the fourth episode of the new (2015) Poldark: films can bring out graphically what is deeply appealing in a novel without discussing this explicitly: I have wondered why I love these books so. Well I saw in the fourth episode that what I love so is the relationship between Demelza and Ross Poldark: I identify utterly with her and find him intensely appealing through her eyes. Horsfield at long last was closely faithful to several long episodes at the close of Ross Poldark, allowing for the long scenes at the pilchard harvest, the visit of Verity and friendship with Demelza, the finding of copper, and finally at Christmas where the couple find themselves pulling apart as his upper class heritage closes in on them and then somehow manage to overcome this: they achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity, his close beloved cousin, has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its pictures, that hard social world, and in the night, the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend.” That’s how it was for us.

I also watched the first episode of Wolf Hall, the film adaptation mini-series from Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction. Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell the best new actor (to me) I’ve seen in a long time. He seemed to transcend the drama of wolves he is caught up in. Heidi Thomas has made Rylance as Cromwell a quiet watcher, a POV, and Rylance in conveying how amoral, lying, snobbish to the nth degree, and awful everyone is to one another as some of them try to protect themselves (Cromwell’s father or brother by contrast savagely beats a boy servant or his son), conveys how strange costume drama itself is. He makes you feel how bizarre it is to watch these people in their extravagant outfits. His calm reasoning presence, and his stance in his outfit, unostentatious (yet rich and becoming — blacks and greys mostly), brought home how strange these costume dramas really are: a ritual version of our humanity.

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He is the only sane spirit about — looking on

Hilary Mantel has re-seen most of the familiar characters: More (Anton Lesser, a great reader for books on CDs) is not the noble martyr, but a narrow minded dangerous man; Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) sly and manipulative; Wolseley (Jonathan Pryce) is not a seething bully but a individual without the power to do what others want, and above all the striking change, is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless politician, is now an ordinary decent man, lower class, quietly, intelligently, patiently trying to make his way. Making Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) important is historically accurate. How Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, must’ve grated on Mantel. Henry VIII remains the same complicated enigmatic figure — in reality a fearful tyrant and more than half-mad by the end. Damien Lewis plays the role; he is as big a star as Bernard Cumberbatch. He’s not an heart-throb but is as ubiquitous in big parts. Joanne Whallay a dignified pathetic Katherine of Aragon. During the course of the first hour, Cromwell’s wife (the actress playing his wife was familiar to me, Natasha Little, once Becky Sharp, and very touching) and children (beloved by him) all die suddenly of the sweating (or sleeping) sickness as it was called. They did, and there was such a fatal illness which killed for a decade or so and then vanished.

I fill my life at home with such presences.

Sylvia

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From Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death

Dear friends and readers,

In a NYRB review (Jan 8, 2015, 72:1), A Better Way Out, Marcia Angell with a few important qualifications heaps praise on Atul Gawande’s latest book on how medicine treats aging and dying, how people sickness, aging, death because of modern medicine’ goals, training, politics: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters. I’ve discussed Gawande before (see Realities of Medicine: how misunderstood), and Marcia Angell’s writing several times (see her on privatizing all aspects of medicine) and this review seems to be publicly on-line, available to the public. So let me just call attention just to a central section of the book and one of its silences.

In the book’s “most powerful chapter,” “Letting Go,” Angell reviews the book so as to bring out Gawande’s theme about the deeply inhumane and dishonest way cancer is treated by modern physicians and hospital staffs (and I’d add hospices too). Knowing how bleak an outlook, doctors lie and offer painful maiming operations and immiserating chemotherapies and radiations whose outcome they cannot predict. They make the last months or year of a person’s life an experience of toxic suffering, giving them (as I know too well) no opportunity to decide to enjoy what they can of their last months. She does not mention that if you refuse the doctor’s treatments, they tell you to go away; they will not provide half-way or palliative care to enable you to carry on in your own way. It’s all or nothing. It’s also highly exploitative. A multi-million edifice for its practitioners and drug companies. A friend told me recently about The Confessions of a Surgeon by Paul Ruggieri where he exposes the pressure put on doctors to recommend operations in order to make huge sums for hospitals (a brief inadequate review). Statistics quoted include physicians on average telling terminally ill patients they will live 5 times longer than they do; those who can find a palliative specialist and stop chemotherapy very early, having no operation, live about 25 per cent longer than those who submit to these treatments.

Do read Angell’s essay. Everything she writes is worth reading and thinking about.

She faults him in two areas: the first is money. He hardly ever discusses money in his writing: yes there are a couple of essays where he discusses money and the way medicine is delivered generally, and advocates moving gradually to a single-payer system, but since what drives each and every encounter between patient and medical person is a fee (and often hefty) this kind of general discussion doesn’t begin to get near the problems (see Money-Driven Medicine). Worse he gives a superficial and prejudiced account of physician-assisted dying: he is against it — he is strongly for high-tech solutions when he thinks they provide a “good outcome;” she points out there is no evidence in any of the US or European states where such practices have begun that assisted dying is resorted to unless the patient decides for it. That Gawande calls this resort a measure of failure shows how somewhere deep in himself he has not accepted the inferences of his own arguments; he may know enough not to use the metaphors of bravery and courage, and heroism (which should have no place in discussions of killing and therefore painful diseases) but he thinks of the decision to die rather than live through a hideous self-destruction unacceptable. Why? when he himself has said it’s not a question of life once it’s most cancers: life’s not on offer, occasionally it is a question of prolonging life (and this is where patients get sucked in, especially when young); for most it quickly enough becomes how and when and where the person dies.

That latter was Jim’s phrase when at first he wanted to do nothing. I couldn’t face his death, and I should have and proposed we go on a trip, and he try to have the best last few months he could. And then he couldn’t face it either.

Endings matter, for animals too.

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A sick kitten being cared for

Sylvia

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