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Friends and readers,

My week of mostly quietly reading, writing in the new world order unfolding all around me, included two masterpiece books I can write briefly about here:

Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge:

By the time I came to the end of the perhaps nameless woman’s journal (and I only realized she had not named herself or had anyone else called her by her first or last name in the last few pages), I felt in a state of terror. Realistic terror, nothing supernatural here. 2/3s of the book an uncanny imitation of an upper class white woman come to live in the West Indies on a plantation where black people are being worked to death, or savagely used for sex, flogged viciously. It’s hard to put why the single word I’d use most strongly is terrifying since so much is left out. We often don’t know why something happened. Phillips imitates diaries in leaving out significant information in the way diarists do. Things suddenly happen without explanation — like Emily (she may be naming herself in her last sentences) is suddenly having sex (an affair) with the white overseer of the plantation she’s been sent to by her father. Quite why we don’t know: her explanation to report on the plantation doesn’t make sense as you need to know something first and clearly she is utterly ignorant of businesses and slavery and plantation life in the West Indies. Maybe her father did this to force her to accept a much older man he wants her to marry whom she is to marry when she returns (and why she realize she doesn’t want to).

The terror insofar as I can account for it does not come from what these human beings are doing to one another or forced to allow others to do to them. It’s presented so prosaically and the white woman repeats the worst ugly cliches about black people — that they deserve this treatment is what her words all amount to, are not worth any other. comes from the evils of slavery which this book has uncovered more than any other I’ve read in the sense of more deeply. It sounds so obvious but what Phillips makes you realize is the true evil of slavery is that the worst aspects of human nature emerge from everyone (slaves and owners, and non-owners and free or partly free black people, and whites in indentured servitude alike) and there is no control, no law. Law is a sham when at any point someone can murder someone else with impunity. White owners can blog a black to death or hang them with them having no recourse (if there is a pretense trial, it’s transparently ridiculous). This leads them to want to murder anyone and everyone who hurts them back. Or at least enough slaves or half-slaves. Everyone lies too, nothing to be depended upon.

So a white woman who has been so foolish as to go to bed with a white man without marriage (unacknowledged desperation) and offered to stay longer and lost her respectability as lost what little safety net she had. Much as I’m led to dislike the unnamed diarist or Emily the terror is for her, as she feels it.

The first text I read which brought all this home to me was Fanny Kemble’s journal of her two years (1839-40 or so) on a South Carolina plantation run on slave labor. Rice the crop. The last two chapters on women: how they are made playthings for violence, scarred for fun, whipped, gang-raped, and then expected to breed; after the birth of the child, forced out within a week to work from dawn to dusk. Mary Prince’s diary tells of how for 12 hours in row 6 days a week she was forced to work in salt waters. Made her blind. Cambridge shows us what life was life in extermination camps too. Today in US prisons. The analogy with the US today is in fact striking. A lawless lying president. Police in the streets permitted to kill with impunity. Fake news that leads white men with assault rifles to come to “self-investigate” and kill people in a family pizza place in Washington, D.C. I begin to be paranoiac and wonder if Trump is manufacturing more fake news to shut down the internet. Now we hear of fake news about Iraq making some of these followers want to go there and kill people.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, especially the central section, Time Past, all about death, dying, disintegration, creating both artificial objects and natural ones as animate

The front “story” is like The Years: the text focuses on what is surrounding description, context, the weather, in most novels: nature, natural forces, the weather, air, light shade, with almost as an afterthought, bits of plot, and what are they? death. there is the sudden sentence that Mr Ramsay stretched out his arm and of course Mrs Ramsay wasn’t there “having died suddenly the night before.” Suddenly their daughter Prue is getting married and all say how wonderful, but then we are told in afterthought fashion she died in childbirth (indirectly said).

While there is no ghost in the manner of M.R. James or psychological projections, the whole section is haunted with the presence of Mrs Ramsay: the house is empty because she’s not there. The narrator slips into third person indirect every once in a while and we are in Lily’s mind or near Mr Ramsay’s or the housekeeper Mrs McNab dusting under the empty beds. That last is so characteristic of Woolf: she usually has some old impoverished woman about. She suddenly turns her mind to Andrew, blown to bits on a battlefield, died immediately she says, relieved to think so.

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading Scott’s The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superceded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – sudden, grieving his frustrated-in-life father so, for many one of the best passages Scott ever wrote, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, “as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss.” Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The film adapted from the last two of Proust’s novels, Time Past, was one of Jim’s favorites: he’d watch it over and over again.

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My beloved well-taken-care of Clarycat photographed in the room where I read these books and type on this computer this week ….

Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in your Living Room:

among much twaddle (the sign you have a book meant for a popular non-reader is that you are given only a couple of nuggets of information or insight every four pages or so lest that reader be intimidated by “too much density”) she is on about how house cats became domesticated by interacting with human beings chasing the same food supply (meat) and what a tremendously successful species they have become. There’s a downsize to this as one could take away from this book, cats are a danger to the earth as this all too numerous predator. She writes in this non-focused meander so her perspective has a way of oozing in unintended directions. She also does not want to offend her readers’ pride so the deep reason we like cats — because they love us, cling to us, create a private hidden world of play, physical affection, interspecies communication omitted.

In Ian’s mind you see he and I are together for say several hours. He is nearby, in various postures close, he does small things, puts out a paw once in a while, when I get up, he follows; he makes a meow; he jumps on my lap, squats, then turns and pushes his whole body against my chest. We are together. Clarycat is just loving me on and off all day. Once in a while she retires to rest in another room or rests in her catbed as you see in the photo. This aspect of the cat Tucker doesn’t acknowledge. They are not lions in living rooms. They are domesticated small feline deep companions.

ianthismorning
Ian this morning, walking around breakfast things, nearby his catnip mouse —

He likes to play with toys still. A small catnip mouse has been a great success. He pushes it around the house with his paw; he has a small bird with a rattle and feathers on a string that he pulls about with his mouth. then he stops and wrestles with it.

I mean to write much more at length, separate blog, on Margaret Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor, Jane Hill’s The Art of Carrington (to say nothing of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, book and 1972 BBC mini-series).

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Camille Pissarro — Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes — it’s 20 degrees outside as I type this

So, outside activities: Three times to the gym in the morning for “body strengthening” classes (a large bunch of older people first semi-dancing and then semi-exercising with chair, plastic ball, weights and stretch chord) at a gym. I put up that tree at the top of this blog. I climbed a ladder thinking to try to put the lights into the higher branches, but realized I’d fall so gave it up. My across-the-street neighbor helped me put a cap on my outside faucet lest the pipes freeze

I have a volume of poetry by women which is titled The Widow’s handbook. It’s very fat, one or two poems each poet. One of the many things it taught me was how varied widowing is — some women lose their husbands to death as early as their 30s (not just an accident but illness) and there’s a great variety of circumstances as well as how he left you. Some husbands don’t tell their wives the truth and she finds herself badly in debt or without a pension. There are devastating reinforcements. The book is organized so as to begin in grief, show some interim time and then the last more upbeat.

I’m finding I can hardly believe 4 years have gone by. They felt in the experience but swift now that it’s 4. When I first was widowed I knew a woman who was so hurt when I seemed to imply that after 4 years she should be doing something other, moving on; now I know I was naive and why she was so hurt.

I came home yesterday late afternoon to discover that my machine had updated itself, and would no longer support “safari” and my gmail was gone to pot, back to some incoherent html system. I emailed my IT guy in a shaking panic and he sensed I needed him NOW. Came right on, and within half an hour I was using a new browser, Internet Explorer, with all my stuff from safari transferred over. I’m having some minor trouble with Yahoo as not all my mail is going there, and each time I come on I must fill in my password once again. But I can live with it. A huge glass of wine gulped down while I watched him. It calmed me, I was able to cope then. He said, “Good way to begin Friday night, Ellen.” I wasn’t so sure.

I had seen a remarkable film, Manchester by the Sea, well worth going to (I became so involved I cried out at one point). Tides of grief the reviewer says. It is a relief to see some accuracy in depicting the economic and social lives of average Americans today, only it’s fake because no one anywhere isn’t white and none of them are overtly desperate for money, or even complain about their status, no one angry but our hero.

The US situation is hard to capture because it is so complicated and made up of so many peoples who are not integrated together, but exist as separate ethnic and other groups, each in tiny world of family, few friends, long hours of work, moving with and to jobs: but basically, reductively, there seems to be a vast body of people living on the edge of economic disaster, just making ends meet, and needing to borrow — sometimes larger sums, but often just using credit cards to do that,”maxing them out” as the vicious man at the head of US power urged his salesmen when they were pressuring people to go to Trump university. There is another group where people seem comfortable, not in debt, have savings, even investments, and houses and cars, but take away some social benefits (pensions) have the stock market collapse and are up shit’s creek. Can’t make ends meet. Evicted, have to move. Now there is a tiny minority of very rich, say 10% and they are not at risk and they want to take back whatever they supply to the others. Massive cuts to social security starts the game. If they manage to do that will there be finally a civil war, an eruption, a revolution. It could go to bring an even more rightist to power as people are so self-centered by every instinct. People don’t revolt easily either; they don’t want to put their lives, their bodies on the line. It’s so easy to kill someone – and with a gun it’s nothing. As yet his Trump followers liking his tweets (oh yes) and only beginning to murmur as they see themselves individually betrayed here and there — like putting in charge of treasury the Goldman Sacks man who was known as a foreclosure “king:” (didnt go to jail for false foreclosures but others did, he just grew richer).

And otherwise Trump leading the pack to “drain the swamp” into which he is stashing alligators. Take away the little people have beyond the bits they can earn. You’re right that they are dependent on consumers buying but do they see that. Apparently Assad thinks he need not have any people in his country. They get in the way of extracting oil and selling it for huge profits. The man put at the head of Labor apparently has said robots are much better as workers at his fast food restaurants; they don’t get sick, don’t ask for vacation, smile at customers, are efficient, never complain. So he’d like to replace as many workers as possible with robots and what does he care of they die of sicken or distress (having no access to medicine, or having it are hounded for debts). Suicides among white women in their 40s going up; life expectancy of US people going down. Minority rule. He and his “mad dog” military demonizing Arabs and Muslims in the ongoing colonialist grabs of oil and natural resources, selling arms (LeCarre’s Night Manager was my topic in a previous diary entry). The real voting choices of the majority stifled, nullified.

The real problem with the movie Manchester by the Sea on its own terms (not its political inferences which are important) is that Kenneth Lonergan thinks in order to make people sympathize with someone going around with such a hurt in him is he has to invent this devastating loss. The hero is responsible — it was an accident but he had been drinking hard, enjoying as it’s said the company of friends over billiards to 3 in the morning, and left the fire on (as his wife insisted she could not bear the heat high in winter) in the fireplace, went out for more beer, and came back to find his home a furnace and his three children dead. But in truth all one needs is to be alive, go through life, see others and be treated by them in various ways for say a few years of teenagehood. Abrasive aggressive and mockery and coldness when I tried to confide, another person telling yet others what I said and a third shocked – you don’t tell such things. Such one small moment. And one can go through life with this terrible hurt within. The hero does have it well before the accident: we see in his eyes how he yearns and how he is rejected — by his wife in bed, by others who don’t understand.

Today Izzy and I saw the HD screening of Kaija Saarianho’s L’Amour de loin (love from afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf. I’ll write a separate blog for this: it was remarkable, taking within its allegory Tristan and Isolde (especially in an 1890s version by Joseph Bedier, in French), the dying fisher king, Aymntas (especially in Wolfram’s Parzival), fear of existence itself (dying and living) so retreat into dreams. Yet it was deeply reactionary: the chorus allowed to bring only parts of their bodies and heads out of some constrained barred area. The worship of the supposed numinous.

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Tomorrow is Sunday and I used to put a poem on this blog every Sunday:

Women
BY: Yannis Ritsos,

translated by Ryan Bloom

Women can seem a world away, their sheets smelling of “goodnight.”
Setting a small loaf of bread on the table so we don’t notice the distance, don’t feel them
missing.
We understand, though, that we are to blame; we rise from our sleep and say:
“Let me burn the flame tonight,” or “You’ve worked too hard today.”
We strike a match; she turns, drifts slowly out of sight, her gaze
inexplicably fixed on the dull kitchen light. Her back,
a bitter slope, bears the weight of death:
family dead, her dead, our own death.
We listen; ancient floorboards creak under her footsteps,
dried streaks of water stain dishes in the dish rack—listen…
there’s the train come to take our soldiers to the front.

What women are enduring everywhere in these crazed wars making terror: Yemen, Syria. What can one begin to say or feel that’s adequate to the case. I began this blog with terror; I had some reference to a cunning clown and his henchman and the immiseration of vast numbers of disenfranchised people I end on horror, dismay, should we not feel helpless rage.

catanddogonstreet
A photo of a dog and cat huddling together on the streets of Iraq this week

I live vicariously too, gentle reader. My social life is getting on the Net, seeing letters from friends and answering and feeling so grateful when they do answer. One group reading group I manage to stay with by having two other people support it who I can write with. Others I look in on. Blogs where I see others like me spend most of their hours among books. Face-book chatting with like-minded people. Twitter hearing how others are reacting to the day’s news or moments of their outward social lives, what they have just read. Just a thought he or she had.

I do love my long hours with books and writing. I love the movies I spend time watching. I see people from afar and a couple close who live my way. I finally understood what went wrong between me and that women Clare Shepherd who I visited for a week in Cornwall and tried so desperately to be friends face-to-face and living around. The thing, the area that made us friends is a self or experience that comes out in writing and from a distance. When encountering one another directly, a very different self comes out and that was one when both of us saw neither of us could relate to.

And how do you get through your days, gentle reader?

Miss Drake

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MarkRylanceasThomasCromwell
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (2015 Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan)

‘Fortitude. … It means fixity of purpose. It means endurance. It means having the strength to live with what constrains you.’ — Mantel, Wolf Hall (a common theme in women’s novels since the 18th century)

Dear friends and readers,

I have ever found solace, comfort, models to channel in my reading. I am listening to a brilliant reading of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall by Simon Slater (CDs in my car), and find I am perpetually enriched by new thoughts, insights, reminders of what I know to be importantly true put in new ways. One character whose thoughts and behavior out of grief I find myself remembering, is Thomas Cromwell’s.

Early in the novel his wife, Liz, dies suddenly, swiftly of the sweating or sleeping sickness (as it was called in the 1520s). Albeit quietly, he is intensely grief-stricken, misses her. While he has an affair with Liz’s sister, Joanne, because Joanne resembles her sister and is there, and does not remarry for more and far different kinds of reasons than that he finds her as an individual who provided support, comfort, a kind of meaning and stable sane mood to his life irreplaceable, nonetheless he dreams of Liz, finds himself trying to grasp her ghostly presence in his thoughts, his environment, he re-enacts talk with her.

Joanne
POV Cromwell, coming up to Johann (Saskia Reeves), his sister-in-law, now loved

Liz
POV Cromwell, a moment later seeing Joanne as Liz (Natasha Little)

He compares what he sees other women doing to what she did. I am nearing the end of the novel where he acknowledges in passing thoughts his relationship to Liz has changed now, his feelings altered. The first year of her death his household did almost nothing to observe Christmas, more than four years later all holiday and other customs are encouraged.

Two or three days ago Slater read the passage where Cromwell at home, once again picks up Liz’s prayer book.

prayerbook
Early in first episode we glimpse Liz’s prayer book, as Cromwell talks of the Tyndale that has come by mail (steathily) and Liz turns away …

She had refused to read the Bible in English, would not listen to the liberating theology of Tyndale. There had been this uncrossable space between them, and yet he cherished the book. We see him muse over it at his desk, take it down from what seems to be a shelf (presumably in his bedroom); next to her name is the name of her first husband, and then below his own. This has hurt him out of jealousy — as also the names of their children together, two daughters because they died of the same sickness not long after, so out of grief and loss, and a son, now living still whom he does all he can for. The moment that means much to me is when he finds himself looking at the entry and crossing out her other husband’s name. He finds he can; he finds he feels better for this, looking about him. The whole thing no longer means as much or means differently. Beautifully authentically caught.

In the book, in the film adaptation, Mantel as Cromwell, Rylance as Cromwell mourn for many others beyond Liz, and mourn for themselves too.

Steady now, steady on.

This morning I found myself remembering a passage from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (no need for me to have it read aloud to me, much less read it myself) where after she has the searing relevation that he has been engaged for four years to another woman, she reflects that no matter how busy she keeps herself, how much she refuses to indulge herself by remembering in solitude, there is still time enough for thoughts of him and what had been to rise to consciousness. But she holds firm, writes on at her desk (Sense and Sensibility was originally an epistolary novel).

FavoriteStill
The 1995 S&S film, scripted by Emma Thompson realizes just this moment (Thompson as Elinor)

Steady now, steady on.

I had been overbusy for many days and yesterday gave in to myself or could not get myself to take a long trip in the deadly heat (officially it felt like 107 fahrenheit) so did not go to the adaptation of a play by Thomas Middleton playing at the Gallaudet College: car, train, then try to find it for at least a 20 minute walk, and after a possible hour or so of play, reverse the experience. I preferred to stay in, read an essay on Fielding which helps me see his true integrity, fineness of feeling,

Rawson

go swimming nearby, a six minute trip by car each way while listening to Wolf Hall, and then home to watch a beloved mini-series. But I felt terrible too. My unwillingness to go was a sign Jim was dead: with him there it would have been no trouble to go (he would have driven us, and had no trouble finding the place, and little trouble parking), I’d not have given it any thought; without him, watching these plays can be desolating as I’ve no one to talk to about them afterward. I cannot yet cross this out and yet I’m beginning to have no need to re-enact.

This morning like Elinor I found the thoughts about this would rise to the surface. I made my routine up for the day, and determined that the way I am living is not done simply because I can’t break the yoke of what I used to do. These things before me — my writing, reading, task routine, my breaks (today again swimming nearby) however meaningless now or to others are what I am, what I enjoy doing, what I understand, get fulfillment from.

Steady now, steady on.

photo
Pussycats (my household) this morning

Miss Drake

Who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant…
—Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work

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busstop

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong — Murphy’s Law

Run mad as often as you choose but do not faint …

Friends,

Today I attempted to get to the Temple Baptist Church on Nebraska Avenue (across the street from a forbidding Homeland Security compound), one of the OLLI places at AU (between the main and Tenley campuses) by public transportation. I did it within an hour and a half.

Unfortunately, the session was cancelled on account of the snow and ice. I missed the email message by 5 minutes. I had virtuously gone off early.

So then I thought I’d look on the bright side and was congratulating myself that at least I had successfully practiced going there in the way Jim and I used to do for me whenever I had a new place to go, when I discovered I was standing waiting for the shuttle bus back to the train on the wrong side of the street. Not to worry — or alas! There was no ominous menacing Mr Bates (he of a gothic Downton Abbey) standing near; rather a friendly busdriver (seeing it was cold) told me to hop aboard and I could go in a circle through the AU campus to the law building (further off) and back again this time on the right side of the street. I did see the library stop (I now have a library card).

Decades ago I patiently stood in the freezing cold waiting for a bus in Leeds, England, only to see the bus go by in the direction I wanted to go on the other side of the street. This was before I met the Admiral who was very good at knowing which side of the street to wait for vehicles on.

I did get there and back, talked to the director while there, have my class list, permission to put a syllabus on my website and tomorrow I should do better as to which sidewalk to wait on. Still, since I have to cross the street to where Homeland Security resides, with my luck I will probably be run over be run over by a laundry truck or tank or some car or bus. Worse luck yet I won’t die, but they will rush me to the hospital and save me — so I’ll be inundated, harassed, hounded by bills for years to come.

A friend suggested to me that next week if I don’t hear from the lawyer, I should phone him and if he’s gotten nothing new to say, then get a second opinion. She argued I should have the right to an explanation in writing. Caroline said call GEICO and they have given me a different phone number from the one I’ve phoned twice. I am not up to this today but will phone Friday. Another friend suggested my state representative. I’ll do that on Monday.

I do dislike taking cabs at high expense (or low) and have now phoned 4 places about hiring drivers: one of them told me in my case it makes more sense to hire a taxi. They do cost as much as Uber and more if you hire by the month. So I’m going to try to take buses and have bookmarked the bus schedules — shall I use a computer for simulated practicing? and how practice walking from where the bus/train leaves off to the place without a detailed visual map?

The DMV silence phone call and all that everyone tells me about going to jail if I drive continue to be a source of anxiety and distress, worry, it troubles my mind. I just can’t feel enough certainty my ability to drive will be returned to me — so the money I laid out for the car and now these cabs depresses and worries me.

I feel shattered and have been reading Austen’s Juvenilia where she thinks characters who claim to feel shattered are hilarious. I don’t.

Gorey Cat
Another Edward Gorey cat

Sylvia

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