Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Winter again

Wintry walk — in a Maryland park

Grey trunks

Leafless limbs shiv’ring
At sharp winter’s blast; beneath:
Roots clasp cold comfort.
— Tony Lee

Each year time out of mind communities of people have framed winter’s first phase with festivities where light and gay color, preferably green, play a central role. In college (1960s a Queens College, CUNY) I read and as a central text of the first half of British literature (1990s at George Mason) I taught the wonderfully marvelous medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, accompanied by much explication where we were told why red was the other favored color, but I’ve forgotten now (it has to do with blood, berries, mistletoe, legends). Still, without knowing why but because it was there and caught our eyes Izzy and I must’ve bought in the past three years (since we’ve been putting up a tree again) a glittery red garland. It’s in such good shape. (Some of our ornaments go back to before Izzy was born, most at least 6 years old. We have far more than we can put on our nowadays tiny trees). It was the final wrap round this year’s decorating:

Each year for some 15 years I’ve also taken down from the attic my pottery penguin dressed for snow sports, whom I named Colin. At night when I plug him in, he too glitters:

This year I bought him a small friend, to sit by said tree too, a silvery squirrel: funnily, my male cat Ian likes to sit next to this squirrel. It is clearly a harmless presence. She is as yet nameless.

We have bought token but wanted presents to exchange with Laura and Rob six days from now (when we are all to go to the Kennedy Center to see An American in Paris, and after eat out somewhere nice), and tomorrow I’ll send out what paper cards I have to exchange, and many more electronic. We added a new (we hope fun) ritual to our usual Jewish Christmas (Izzy and I go to a movie and then eat out Asian food on the 25th, with the next Boxing Day spent at a museum): on Christmas eve’s afternoon an English Christmas pantomime we found happens each year in Bear and Bush tavern style in a small Alexandria City theater. Jim enjoyed these so (we managed over the years to find three, twice in DC and once at the English embassy), especially the music hall routines that usually accompany them.

Our miniature Maple outside in front — dusk, close-up (this year I had an outside socket installed)

I seem to have forgotten to mention that about three weeks ago I made my way to an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Hirshhorn museum — a Smithsonian event where a professor accompanied about 2 hours of brilliantly chosen clips from films of great productions, interspersed by a local Georgetown theater group (college students) who each spring do a full G&S production. It was great fun, a full auditorium, but I realize that most of the people there had not seen much G&S where I have seen so many — from my years living with Jim. It ended on one of my favorites, which was one most of the people in the audience seemed not to know, from the ending of The Yeoman of the Guard, “I have a song to sing O”. Jim said at the time the sad ending of the play and this song were unusual for G&S.

It brings to mind a song I was led to listen to today, which I’ll close on.

I was coming to the end of the 9th Poldark novel, The Miller’s Dance, where Clowance Poldark, of the Napoleonic era heroines (the year 1812) seems about to self-destruct by knowingly marrying a man she knows to be violent, a liar, possessive, unreasonable, and yet is drawn to — reminding me of what Chaucer and Shakespeare say about the love of Troilus and Cressida that they drink down the poison as it answers some need in their veins (an enthralling drug). She is at an assembly ball and Valentine (a twisted soul himself, whom she thinks is her cousin but is her half-brother) calls for “The Miller’s Dance.” The characters do not know this dance as it seems to be an older one, and we are told it begins with long resonant strings, “creating a deep echoing note such as is heard before a Scottish reel.

Gradually the dance emerges as couples follow a caller and dance round a solitary man kneeling on a sheaf of corn. In the song variant written probably by Graham, the figure counts “his corn and taxes the sun,” but when it comes to money, all vanishes and at the word “gone,” the couples must change partners. Whoever remains in the middle partnerless is pelted by what comes to hand (cake, ribbons, nuts, candied food). In this civilized time all is a “noisy lark but the heavy beat of the music and its peculiarly melancholy rhythm” has an effect of “old Cornish tunes, building an emotion by its endless repetition and conjuring up superstitions and practices which could not so easily survive the night.” The narrator wonders if the “sacrificial centre” had once upon a time “been stoned.” (The archaic basis of the story and motifs of Sir Gawain and his Green Knight is similarly atavistic — someone bewitched, someone beheaded.)

Clowance enjoys the wild dancing and exchanges, half-reeling with exhaustion, until it comes to her this music had “been communicating something to her which had been taken out of her psychic self … ” For her the miller is this man she is trying to break off from, “an unshriven spirit,” “vigorous, brash fascinating … hair, muscle, sinew … ready to fight … to demand what he thought to be his,charming, dominating, ruthless …”

I went about to find the source, and got back as far as a Chesire folk song, found copied out in a manuscript traced to John Dryden, later resurfacing as reworked by Isaac Bickerstaffe in the 18th century from a man and his sons, to be about a deeply reclusive distrustful man, to a re-incarnation in 1973 by Sondheim as “The Miller’s Son” (A little Night Music, an adaptation of Bergman’s movie, Smiles of a Summer Night.

The song quoted in the novel is a fictionalized version of all these others, made to fit the story and characters. As danced in the novel by these 18th century characters it would be closer to the YouTube rendition of the 18th century dance, but I think the layering here includes and comes to refer primarily to that erotic Miller’s Son. It’s not summer in the novel but later November into winter.

What purports the nomination of this song: the price of having chosen a version of that miller’s son. This is my fifth winter without him.

Miss Drake

Oh tree oh little tree

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Santa into the woods

Beatrix Potter, Christmas Pudding

Dear friends and readers,

I have felt that I and all the people around me are living in some unreality, something I used to read about as occurring elsewhere, or in time past. A fascist gov’t takes power, a party brazenly determined to destroy democracy since their leaders and followers are a minority, where seemingly quite inexplicably (it’s not really) even a majority of the people living within the land mass where this gov’t will have a monopoly on legal violence and control of laws, courts, prisons, are against all that is happening. Yet the process continues to occur since there is no political will among those with some power to stop it so that soon the worst and corrupt decisions are about to be enforced. But we are all not in a novel about horrifying perniciousness though, since one need only take a train to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to see the circus and military-armed police there (forget Guy Fawkes). I probably assumed without admitting this to myself that it could not happen where I live. Encompassed. This is more than a winter solstice. More than a matter of short days and cold winds. I thought of a line from the author of Game of Thrones: Winter is coming.

From the Disney movie we saw a couple of years ago on Christmas Day: Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife

Within this soon-to-be directly dislocated, yet more war-threatened (with a nuclear arms race according to a man who performs to his public through tweets) beleaguered world, Izzy and I managed a few cheerful rituals. Life goes on. She and I and Laura went to the Kennedy Center on the afternoon of Christmas Ever and enjoyed a performance of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which seemed to have mostly understudies that afternoon. Izzy pointed that out saying we had a diverse cast. Then out to a restaurant where we had the yummiest Chinese food I’ve had and seen in a long time. As I’ve done before I began to cry

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone …

Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see
And learn …

Careful the spell you cast …

Though it’s fearful
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark
and though you may lose the path,
Though you encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen …

Into the woods but not too fast,
Or what you wish you lose at last,
Into the woods but mind the path

The way is dark
The way is dim ….

The truth is I miss Jim more than ever. Now that this horror of a gov’t is taking charge and will do cruel acts across the world and inside the US (privatize and thus destroy social security, abolish medicare by whatever means they can, cut the federal govt where what jobs are good are), and their bully leader floods the media with poisonous, menacing lying tweets, I feel more alone and vulnerable. Into the fourth year without his loving companionship and the perpetual satisfaction with living he created. I have no substitute for him. Can find none. Books, good movies, my daughters, friends help to sustain.

The night before I had gotten through by watching once again (a yearly ritual for me) the exquisitely melancholy-comic Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. I’ve watched it now for a few years. I enjoy the party and love the ending peroration by Donal McCann:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Closing images of Irish landscape under snow

And that evening Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, an appropriation of Mansfield Park set during Christmas week, with very realistic NYC Christmas time scenes — ones I recognize, bringing in Christmas by watching a film of a fake yule log burning in a fake hearth. It reached only innocence soiled: Audrey goes shopping blithely enough:


I was going to try for a third movie, Love Actually, but decided perhaps this year its fierce resistance to anguish, even accompanied by the brilliantly satiric Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around Us would no longer work. That is not what is all around us. Christmas day we didn’t do too well, but our Boxing Day sojourn at the National Gallery brought us into two good exhibits, one of drawings made by Dutch Renaissance painters for some good pictures,

The painters did not paint while outside, but drew what they saw and brought in the drawings and proceeded

and another of photography (a few good pieces, the early ones by Cindy Sherman, one from a series on artists who restore pictures, but many pretentious as if seeking to make up for their show-offy “low” content), lunch out.

What women made to look like in the 1950s

I thought of Jane Austen’s quip about a couple of days she passed in travel: “we were very little crowded and by no means unhappy.” Especially over our bowls of spaghetti at home on December 26th.

I managed to clear a space between our Christmas tree (sitting on its piece of furniture under a window) and said window so that the cats can look out the window again, and so they can be comfortable … staring out once again at the clear mild winter day scene …

We’ve decided for New Year’s Eve we’ll stay in once again.

Today I was deeply stirred by the close of what I now think a very great historical novel, Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover: soliloquy diaries by three women: Catherine Barlow Hamilton (Sir William Hamilton’s wife, a man who wanted to be remembered for his collection and as having loved volcanoes though what he is remembered for is having married) Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, her mother, Mrs Cardogan, and stunningly Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel:

I feared I never would understand what would allow me to protect myself … I would lie to myself about how complicated it was to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their glory or well-being [modernized: their place in the organization]. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. I’m seeing some of the fantasy conventions permit needed instruments for creating truths.

Fonseca Pimentel was a remarkable journalist, poet, radical, senselessly murdered, a historical novel about whom I will read next: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91). I had only heard of her vaguely before: the novel almost exists to tell her story finally. Nell and her 20th century author (in the novel too) require a separate blog as did my watching of the BBC The Hollow Crown; this week too. All so newly relevant.

My plan for New Year’s Eve: read Jonathan Bate’s book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, dip into two I’ve been meaning to look at: Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare and Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, Randall Jarrel’s poetry, then a favorite mini-series. Or shall I subside into a favorite Jane Austen movie? or continue with the new Poldark?

We (two of us on Wwtta) carry on reading Hermione Lee’s astonishingly deep biography of Virginia Woolf which has enabled me to come closer to her than ever I did, and over on Trollope19thCStudies a few of us Christmas stories, tonight for me the excitingly visionary ghost story, “Library Window” by Margaret Oliphant: I entered utterly into her dream of a young girl writer who sees across the street in a window a vision of the inexorable demands, price, and rewards of writing, reading, as a way of sustaining oneself hour-by-hour.

It’s a nightmare story about being a writer; about what one has to give up to become a writer, and also what one has to let into one’s soul and allow that perception of reality (however much it’s trauma, however much it takes such hard work) to sink in; one must loose one’s moorings from the social world around and pick up the currents of inward life. Since it is one of Oliphant’s last stories it is her looking back from the perspective of what she was when she set out. There is a luminousness about the tone too. I felt deeply stirred by how she experienced the depths of imaginative reverie as shown in the story. There’s an allusion to Scott which suggests she did see herself as following him finally, not Trollope; the story is set on a street in St Andrews she visited many times when young.

On face-book Christmas day some of the facades were cracking, but not enough to register; a mother and daughter who loved one another dearly have died and twitter shows the grief some feel at the loss of Carrie Fisher, from a massive heart attack at age 60, a remarkably candid writer and iconic actress (Princess Leia, Star Wars) whose memoir, Postcards from the Edge, suggests a Dorothy Parker manque following Carolyn Heilbrun’s prescription to tell. I did not realize her mother, Debbie Reynolds, had phases of her career where she acquitted herself beautifully in serious plays and movies; I wouldn’t discount the brilliance of her performance in the the great “Singin’ in the Rain.” She was living next door to her daughter, outlived her but two days — the blow brought on a stroke.


My daughters seem to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. I am so touched over how the mother died of a broken heart, her grief was too much for her heart to sustain.

And on Wom-po, a poem by Dunya Mikhail as translated by Elizabeth Winslow, about how she turned around to discover she had lost the country she thought she had been living in, which I’ll quote these lines from:

Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky,
or engraved on a rock
like a gaping wound,
or wrapped
in the blankets of emigrants,
or canceled
like a losing lottery ticket …

please to let her know, where, how it has gone, how find it again, who will return it.

This week’s massacre: Aleppo

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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Dancing and Dinner (Huston’s The Dead)

I cannot change my mind for you, my dears ….
all the lovely and beautiful times we had — Sappho, trans. M. L. West

Sounds from our life’s first poetry —
like music at night, far off, fading out — Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Friends and readers,

The last few days and evening have passed peacefully and mostly cheerfully.

Izzy has been “let out” of work (like some prisoner whose sentence is briefly commuted) early repeatedly: the 22nd, 4 pm, the 23rd, the same, then the 24th at noon! she betook herself to Old Town on Christmas Eve day, had lunch out, walked (though the wet sky did persist in raining on her) amid the pretty place and got home just as I was leaving. I spent the evening with a new friend, Phyllis: spinach inside some kind of light baked flaky dough; home-made soup, squash (vegetables are such a treat for me nowadays), banana bread, all washed down by wine. We listened to musicals (Weber, Fosse) and women narrators: Lorrie Anderson who conjures up worlds of half-mad Americans, and Nora Ephron’s wry essays from her I Feel Bad About My Neck. She sounded to me just like Laura Linney — one of my favorite actresses.

Christmas Day I slept until nearly 8. Izzy’s custom is to play good Christmas music, and this morning she had the whole of the Christmas Revels. Around 1:30 we began what some and we call (comically meant) a “Jewish Christmas,” out to a Chinese restaurant (good food, warmly lit felt place – since some detail menus, we had peking duck and savory eggplant dish, me Riesling wine). Phyllis met us there because I had forgotten my reading glasses the night before, and then stayed for dinner. Before the hot rain began to pour (the 25th was like a day in May, muggy, heavy, raining dankly like some neglected greenhouse), brief walk for me & Izzy, and then she and I at home watched John and Tony Huston’s moving delicately nuanced sometimes very funny (as when Lady Gregory’s dreadful poem is read aloud and all admire it) film adaptation of Joyce’s culminating Dubliner story, The Dead, starring Donal McCann as Gabriel and Anjelica Huston (this was a family affair) as Gretta. We had together written a paper a few years ago on this story, comparing it to one by Anne Enright. At the close of the movie Huston films older parts of Dublin and then the Irish countryside, a couple of old churches and some very ancient gravestones, and McCann uttering Gabriel’s magnificently melancholy words ….


Evening for me one of my presents, Patti Smith’s M Train and for her ice-skating on the Net and her present, Mary Beard’s SPQR.

These latter were acquired on the evening of the 23rd. Caroline came over and we drove about and went shopping to an open group of sidewalks, semi-mall in Arlington. The Apple Store. Izzy did not need an new ipad after all, resident “geniuses” in red t-shirts fixed it for her and improved my access to g-mail on my cell phone. Then we adjourned to a bookstore and bought two books each. We then did our exchange of presents in Caroline’s car. (I forget what books Caroline got, what was Izzy’s second, mine was Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of her Neapolitan novels as I recently finished her powerful My Brilliant Friend.) We did Christmas in the car.

I do wonder on and off why I just don’t sit and cry, and the answer comes back, it’s useless, plus would ruin what we can have. “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 had a panic attack one noon, the 22nd: I became convinced my car had been stolen. I went out to my car park and it was not there. It took three hours, frantic phone calls, a police officer coming over and questioning me slowly — and courteously, to awaken the memory I had left it the night before near the Metro because a neighbor offered to drive me home. The sadness is worse at night, sometimes sleep comes hard, at the same time as in one way at least for this yearly event this year I felt freer without him.

You see Jim hated Christmas in his deepest self from bitter memories of childhood as well as times in public school as a day boy. (I’ve met a lot of people who dislike the imposition, find the insistence of others oppressive; cannot ignore family pathologies.) Then I watched the famous BBC documentary from the 1960s, Cathy Come Home. I had been waiting for weeks for it to come from Amazon.uk as I am in the midst of reading an good book on British Television Drama (Lez Cooke) which discuss the very best (also John Caughie’s Television Drama: realism, modernism, British culture). A devastatingly traumatic story about a couple driven into homelessness (he cannot make enough money for rent once he gets into a bad accident and loses physical abilities, once she has children, she makes none), rightly immensely respected: I had not quite realized what it means to say the Wednesday Night plays on the BBC were not presented as plays but as contemporary films, this one with its montage, over-voices, photographed real places, a seeming documentary. The last scene because Cathy has become obstreperous she is evicted from the last shelter, and since she has no hope of anyone who will rent her a place for her meager change, her children are forcibly removed from her in a bus station she has fled to.

It is an unforgettable experience.

Chance turned out to be fitting for me because the film brought home to me one aspect of how & why Jim came to feel about Christmas the way he did. In 1948 to 51, when he was born until age 3 or so, his mother and father lived in condemned housing where they were continually harassed to get out of it, berated for not finding another place, threatened, without being given the slightest help (money, contacts, nothing) — the excuse was that there was no housing and probably just after the war there wasn’t. Unlike Cathy, my mother-in-law remained polite (she had been an under-governess in a great house, a job she hated but taught her silence). They were not evicted. After a futher year of misery (he was 4) Jim’s mother’s best friend managed to get a larger flat where she could invite them to stay with her. Then a year or so after that, with her negotiating skills and a loan on remarkably easy terms (2% interest at first) from a Friendly Society (workman’s loan association), Jim’s parents bought an long old narrow attached house in Southampton. They lived there until Jim’s father died in 1978 and his mother moved to Leeds to be near her daughter (Jim’s sister, now a vicar).

Jim’s first remembered Christmas was hardly any food to eat, much less presents ,and heartless menacing and cold scorn from authorities who came to nag because these people feared for their jobs if people stayed in condemned housing. A first searing experience of individual and community hypocrisy. I had tried until I was 9 to be the child I was supposed to be on Christmas day in myths, but experience and truthfulness began to break this veneer down when I was 11. Over the years he moderated: after 11 years of marriage, when Laura was 2 we had a tree for her sake, and in her and Izzy’s babyhood, I performed the Santa shower of presents, and then my parents started coming over and we’d have the family meal, but suffice to say as time went on, and hard experience intervened, this yearly enforced set of demands became more and more fraught. The imposition, the grating on my worn nerves while I kept trying, a increasing grief to me.

He did break this cycle in 2000. He took Izzy and I to Paris for 2 weeks over Christmas and past New Year’s Day. We all remembered it afterward as a magical time. We saw so many plays: Corneille’s Cinna (slow enough I could understand), Moliere’s Tartuffe (very acrobatic), a dramatization of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Offenbach’s La Perichole (extraordinarily festive operetta), Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (for New Year’s Eve after which we walked to the Eiffel Tower to see the fireworks); we went to fascinating movies, remarkable bookstores, ceaseless museums, to Versailles, on bus tours into the countryside; we even went to the banlieus. We were in an apartment worthy a movie about picturesque Paris (not far from Notre Dame). Christmas Day Jim went to a market and brought home cooked what he said was French Christmas meal — I recall a ham, some yummy vegetable dish, a roll of fancy cake. The best thing about Christmas day in Paris was so much was open; you didn’t have to observe the day if you didn’t want to, and lots of people were going out. We saw some Racine play that day. The last day we were there (January 3rd) Izzy stood on one of the bridges and stared hard to try to keep in her mind all we had experienced.

Then for a couple of years we tried for a new set of customs: the Jewish Christmas, Chinese restaurant and movie and for a couple of years enough of the Paris mood and memories remained. One of these two or three years we happened into a restaurant where the Peking Duck came out with flames and it was carved in front of us. We added on Boxing Day one year: we hadn’t one set of relatives to go to, much less a second, but discovered how all the museums in DC were open and put on special blockbuster shows. So we began to do the second British Christmas day: I remember (and have the books for) The Victorians, John Singer Sergeant, Vuillard; Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard; an innovative exhibit on the natural landscapes and photographs of the Pre-Raphaelites. I wrote blogs on some of these. But not every year is there is worthwhile exhibit. We also added going to Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve and the ball there. But by 2010 we had again been thinking, we needed to break away, do it freshly, the three of us, a trip elsewhere for the two weeks — Scotland maybe.

Artemis and deer (from after Augustus, in Rome)

Izzy and I had not planned to do Boxing Day this year: I cannot remember if we did it last. I knew we had had a good day the 25th and I said to her this morning, a little regretfully but thinking this was best to make it explicit, well maybe it’s time to give up this second day. She responded, “At the National Gallery they have a good exhibit on Hellenic Sculpture.” “Would you like to go?” “Yes.” As her present of Mary Beard may suggest, Izzy is into Latin and Roman Culture. She took Latin in school every year from the time she was 11; some years she had Latin two hours a day; she minored in it at Sweet Briar. During the 4 years between getting her librarian job and graduation from Buffalo (MLIS), she took 3 courses in latin and Roman history/culture at Mason (post-graduate, no credit). This exhibit would be part of her thing.

It was somehow so touching that when we walk round back, we discovered he has these perfectly delicately carved feathery wings — the human presence who did this came across

We set forth by 11 am. Pathos and Power one of the more intelligently put together exhibits I’ve seen in a while. the curators reveal an art of true individuality, subjectivity grew up in the ancient Greek empire as artists commemorated heroes, royals and heroines (Athena and Artemis were there; also one Egyptian queen), and some ordinary people in bronze between 300 BC and 100 AD. There are photographs of frescos, paintings of places in Greece and Italy where these were found or temples are or were located. The exhibit includes a room on collectors, what periods this material was gathered in, where; in slightly later centuries (3rd century AD) how they were used, then how copied by the Romans, then the 18th century excavations, 19th. We noticed how much is recently found: since the 20th century maybe it’s been more obvious to fisherman or people living near frozen mud they can get money for these objects? A piquant well-photographed 25 minute film from the Getty narrated by someone Izzy recognized as a fine narrator and scholar. I bought a book of Greek Lyric Poetry — fresh lovely translations with a picture of Sappho by Gustave Moreau on the cover.

Sappho on the Rock (Moreau)

Downstairs to the cafeteria for a sit down and lunch. We were game for more and, escalator up, went back to the main galleries and lost ourselves among 19th and early 20th century American impressionist and realistic pictures. I began to feel dizzy and she to have had her full. Christmas Done.

I had so liked the displays of scarlet and pink winter flowers and large green trees with white lights around the garden and fountain areas so we took photos of one another before we left.



By a much later Greek poet than Sappho

In the Evening

It would not have lasted long in any case.
Years of experience taught me that. And yet,
it was rather hasty, the way Fate ended it.
The good times were brief.
Bur how powerful the fragrances;
ow wonderful the bed we lay in;
what pleasure we gave our bodies!

An echo from those days of pleasure,
an echo from those days came near,
an ember from our youth’s fire;
I took one of his letters
and read it over and over until the light faded.

Melancholic, I stepped out on to the balcony –
Stepped out to change my mood by seeing at least
a little of this city that I love,
a little movement in the streets and in the shops.
—C. P. Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon

Miss Drake

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Dear friends and readers,

I mentioned my daughter whom I sometimes or used to call Yvette and mostly call Izzy (her name is Isobel) was working on a YouTube rendition of Goo Goo Dolls‘ “Better Days” for Christmas Eve. Here’s Izzy:

If you want to view and listen on her blog. click on We need more fruit.


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Miss Sook (Charlotte Akin), Buddy (Seamus Miller) and Truman (Christopher Henley) — in Holiday Memories at WSC Avant Bard

… its own sorrow suffices to the day … As a dreamer on a dream: ‘Believe me – oh! believe” — Sheridan LeFanu in the nostalgic House by the Churchyard (1860s novel, much loved by James Joyce)

Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

Friends and readers,

Izzy and I are getting through this season better than we did last. Today she was listening to Brahm’s and she is busy re-orchestrating and singing anew. Read the lyrics of Better Days by Goo goo Dolls; it’s a contemporary New Years and Christmas carol:

This inventing new contemporary forms to speak to us is my subject this evening.

For some decades now we — meaning those of us who want to have some authentic experience each year during the Winter Solstice validating the idea that life is good — have been in need of some contemporary story or set of characters that can evoke confirmation. Setting aside the religious myth of 1st century AD coming out of the Mediterranean world, and the medieval Christmas rituals that still holds sway in churches and account for some of the content of ancient folk Christmas carols and some pre-18th century classical music, the originating Christmas matter for the domestic family holiday for some 150 years, a Victorian orgasm of retrieval and relief from feared death into joy through ghostly intervention was by Dickens: A Christmas Carol. I suggest this one no longer quite does. Recent dramatizations show actors very uncomfortable in a number of the roles, from the eagerly deferent Crachit to the sacred disabled (dying) boy. Actors can do the narrator but Scrooge? Alistair Sims (1951) seems to me the last actor to invest the part with credibility. So Dickens’s story matter is appropriated and transformed into defenses of Christmas for children or read aloud dramatically on stages to select audiences: it still has power, as a graphically anti-capitalist story showing the immiseration, disease and death caused by wide-spread abysmal poverty and the system that makes it, and the famous retorts (“Are there no workhouses?” “Ours is a competitive business, sir,” says the undertaker). But that’s not what this insistent “holiday” season is after.

Individually redemptive ghost tales, which it is too (and is a Victorian speciality, as seen in Margaret Oliphant), stories of true charity and forgiveness enacted (Trollope pretended to think this was what was wanted), and more recently, the 1930s childification of Miracle on 34th Street (what’s wanted is to prove to children there is a Santa, a kindly god rewarding you with presents) are become obsolete in their pure form too. For my part I don’t believe The Nutcracker ever touched any heart, much less the stilted opera Hansel and Gretel.

Patterns of family life and the way friendship works in the later 20th or early 21st century world are now too far from what’s found in the candidly aptly titled It’s a Wonderful Life where the hero is persuaded out of suicide by the star-become-angel Clarence (seeking promotion), though it does seem to enact what’s wanted today by some, about the closest thing as a domestic family story to rally round. Even there literal minded people prefer concrete details that remind them of their own lives. Who can believe in a wife like Donna Reed enacts? or the whole town giving up their savings to save the hero who saved them. (It’s worth remembering that the film though praised by a few critics, was originally a commercial flop and called gloomy or depressive; only when put on TV and a couple of decades later did it seem to speak to people.)

So new parables come along — as do new songs for Christmas in new tempos and genres. To stay with movies, I’m told that Love Actually has had some purchase with its intertwined stories of deep anguish as everyone attempts for the sake of everyone else to be cheerful and loving or at least have sex with, smile at, exchange presents with one another. The opening gives the moral spoken so confidently by Hugh Grant:

PM (v/o): Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed – but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified, or newsworthy – but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge- they were all messages oflove. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find that love actually is all around …

duly sent up by the ultimate burlesque of Bill Nighy’s inimitable rock song, Christmas is All Around Us. It gets away with its sentiment by sheer bravado, fast pace, many stories, over production, loud music, and farce.

My own recent favorites have been Joyce’s Dubliner story, “The Dead,” and John Huston’s moving adaptation, and Whit Stillman’s quietly realistic Metropolitan (an appropriation of Austen’s Mansfield Park).

But this season here in DC (and specifically Arlington), a new candidate has come along, well relatively new as it played on TV in 1966 in one of the Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas: a two hour dramatization of two stories by Truman Capote (won an Emmy at the time), “A Thanksgiving Dinner” and “A Christmas Memory,” which is been utterly reconceived by Russell Vandenbroucke, and in this production directed by Tom Prewitt. Sure, if we think hard about what we are seeing, we have a disabled woman, an elderly aunt (Miss Sook, played by Charlotte Akin) allowed to act out antics with Buddy (Seamus Miller) a lonely equally misfit boy, but the fable is not meant to be seen from a medical and socially realistic standpoint (see Time Treanor); Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post understood what the dream-memories are for: they compensate. The stories as played became a gay older man’s version of Dylan Thomas’s analogous A Child’s Christmas in Wales: both use a child’s perspective centrally, intermixed or corrected by the older man’s voice. At Theater on the Run (as at the Folger Shakespeare years ago when Jim and I took our two daughters), it’s essentially a long lyric soliloquy, poetic, demanding a skilled actor who walks in and out of a dramatization by actors of the cherished memories he is confiding, which come from Capote’s life.

The playbill includes a photograph of Capote’s aunt and Capote as a boy

I thought what made the production authentic (not meretriciously getting up Christmas feeling) was that the story was presented as a nostalgic memory, so we need not worry how accurate it is; that’s not insisted on at all. It’s a magical interlude, funny, touching and melancholy all at once. The narrator is also not interested in validating Christmas or the Thanksgiving holiday as such, but the relationship as he remembers it between his aging powerless aunt and himself as her loving young friend, Buddy as having given them what happiness they knew during the short years of Capote’s young childhood. Vandenbroucke’s script is continually qualifying the boy’s memories by providing enough for us to see the people all around, including a family, school bully (Devon Ross), even the dog (Liz Dutton) tolerate what they see is a delusion, taking from it what they can use to shore up egos, appetites, and as part of a party (e.g., fruitcakes). “A Thanksgiving Holiday” was stronger because there was more of a story and it was less drenched in sentimentality; it was a story of a young boy badly bullied, and the ending moral as given by the aunt was wrong (a conventional insistence on adhering to social conventions as the right thing to do). “Christmas Memories” was saved by the sudden swerve to tragic close: we learn that Truman was sent away to school by his mid-adolescence, that the dog died, and aunt was left alone to write to the boy as best she could.

A dopplelganger pair of voices: the boy and the man

All the actors were superb, and as they had little props but lighting and costumes they needed to be; but the presence who carried it was the narrator, Truman remembering, Christopher Henley, who invested in it a vindication of the deep compassion and courageous sense of humor of a man once mocked in public media for his sexual orientation. My friend, Phyllis (who was with me) marveled at his performance.

It’s too late for me to recommend this production as it ended tonight but any reader can take it as a recommendation for the later season of this company. The WSC has taken different forms, been in a number of stable venues and has a long honorable history; I’ve reviewed other of its productions over the years. See their face-book page for the coming A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I do have a contemporary poem for tonight about the value of cherished memories:

The Forgotten Room

A sort of house within a house,
Neglected through forgetfulness:
The heavy frames now locked and rusted,
The beveled stairs now soft with dust
    And generous passageways
    Redoubled like a maze
        To make
        Me take
Each turning that I must.

Have I forgotten I once lived here?
Can I remember how to live?
A gleam of sun from hidden skylights
Is just enough to wander by
    And marvel at the space
    In such a secret place,
        The reach
        Of each
Mysterious room I try.

Pulleys in cupboards, beaded panels,
Something like a ball-room’s scope,
Yet all contained within the heartless
Commonplace from which I start,
    That daily shape I fill,
    The present time I kill.
        How fast
        The past
Forgets to play its part!

The stature that a ruler marks
Is accurate, though temporary:
Birthdays are a kind of keepsake
When children’s ages make their leaps,
    And measuring lets them grow
    Surprisingly, although
        How tall
        On a wall
The pencil slowly creeps!

I too was once that growing thing.
The world assembled its surprises
And bathed me in a hopeful aura
Which fed a burning at my core.
    And now I hardly know
    If there is still aglow,
        Since I have faced
        The waste
And hope for nothing more.

Still, I have found it in my dreams
And opened an unlikely door
For my forgetfulness to enter
And to be lost itself. What then
    If I must wait until
    Such strange time as I will
        Have crossed
        That lost
Loved threshold once again?
— John Fuller

Tomorrow evening my neighbor-friend, Sybille and I will go to the Folger Shakespeare Christmas Concert of an early 18th century composer’s Four Seasons, matched with poems (so the musical is like 19th century pictorial music), interspersed with playful Christmas songs by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (also 18th century): “The Season Bids Us.” We reach back before Dickens.

We have, Izzy and I both, avoided all malls.

Miss Drake

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A haiku

Tiny trees, in and out of doors
    defenses: gleaming light, glitter charms
against the bleakness, pussycat …

Miss Drake

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