Posts Tagged ‘girlhood’

Standing Rock, this Thanksgiving Day: by Medea Benjamin the water protectors

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since Jim died (and perhaps a few years before that), Izzy and I had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner and with other people. A beautifully cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, a kind of puree of broccoli (with various delicious ingredients blended in), red cabbage (somehow made sweet), stuffing, muffins, for me wine, for her apple juice. My neighbor who lives across the street invited us over and made this dinner: I brought an apple pie and bottle of wine. We talked, and ate, and talked again with good music from NPR: like Aaron Copeland, while we sat around a table doing some serious puzzle putting together. I’ve no photos to prove it; you’ll just have to believe me. I did read an article in the Washington Post which had your regulation photos of turkeys (not cooked, but alive): Debbie Berkowitz told about the terrible conditions poultry workers (that’s people who prepared the unfortunate chickens too) endure (freezing cold, dangerous hard repetitive work, very low wages). A thought which might hinder the usual showing off by photographing the unfortunate bird.

We went across the street around 4 and were there about four hours. The generosity of this woman gladdened our hearts and made the coming winter time more cheerful to contemplate. I wish I could get myself to volunteer in a local homeless shelter where they make meals for people on Christmas day, but I hesitate each year since Jim died. They want me to fill out forms, to agree to have any photos they want, and this year $50 on top of that. So I don’t know again. At any rate, we came back me to read, and she to sleep because she’s promised to write for Fan-Sided another report on ice-skating (I think it is) which starts US time at midnight; she’ll watch, take notes, off to work at 7:30 am, and back again to resume work. Do not underestimate the great solace of writing. About mid-morning today I wrote four letters to friends who had written me, two because it’s Thanksgiving and they know I have birthday coming up.

Another is reading. Over on Wwtta @ Yahoo, about three of us are reading Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and we are into Chapter 24 or so where Lee writes of how important to Woolf was reading. I loved the chapter, but my companion in reading, Diane Reynolds, suggested there is something missing: Lee does not tell which were Woolf’s “touchstone” books (the word from Matthew Arnold’s famous essay on how he tells if a passage is great writing (he reads it against “touchstone” lines of greatness): “which books did she return to again and again in the course of her life.” And why these? In the case of Woolf, one problem is she read so much, it’s not clear she might have thought to write about this until until her immersion was such, she would probably talk of a kind of book (Russian, say, classical). Then as a paid reviewer, she’d have had to think about so many she was paid to read.

So I thought in this desolate, desperate and frightening time before Trump takes office (it’s hard to take in that huge numbers of human beings are willing to allow this corrupt bully monster such power — what a mass failure of imagination is here, Jim might have said), I’d cite the books that I’ve read and reread and reread and those that have changed my reading life and thus me profoundly.


At 8 I’d read and reread P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park — for the park: I lived in the Southeast Bronx and loved tracing the park on the end papers. I loved the quietly magical adventures where this enigmatic strict woman emerged as all kindness, courtesy, reciprocal love. In another of the Poppins books the children visited the Pleiade, the “seven sisters” Margaret Drabble called them and I remembered ever after the drawing of Maia skipping along on the sidewalk. Alcott’s Little Women over and over and I still think in terms of some of its parables. I was lured by The Secret Garden too. I read one copy of Gone with the Wind until it fell apart. All this around age 10 to 12.

From the time (same age) I’ve read Sense and Sensibility Elinor has helped me. She provides a way of thinking, a kind of (yes) self-control, self-protection, that I’d try to emulate and hold to. I remember doing that around age 17 and thought it helped keep me sane. Having spent 5 years on Richardson’s Clarissa it too has been central — though I wish I had known Mary Piper’s Saving Ophelia. It might have helped save me years of mental anguish — I probably would have practiced the same kind of guarded retreat as the best way for me to cope with aggressive heterosexual male culture. How I identified with Fanny, loved the melancholy neuroticism of Anne Eliot. I have never stopped reading Austen for long, especially the six famous books, even Emma which at least has the rhythms of deep heart beat with order and harmony in the sentences, rather like letting Bach or Handel get into the pulses of my blood going through my chest and heart Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre are books I read and reread in my teens. Bronte sent my pulses soaring with her comments about having a treasure within her she’d not sell away

These will seem strange and won’t resonate but this set of books has been as important: Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A user-Friendly Guide. For the first time I could understand what was meant by de-construction, all these “theoretical” outlooks put into words which were meaningful. It was Tyson’s book which made me a feminist. I am not a feminist out of a search for power, or influence, or about a career (none of which I’ve ever had), but as a liberation from the dark nightmare of the way sexuality is conducted in our society. For the first time I had words which did not shame me to discuss the experiences I had endured, and this book took me to others where I understood for the first time I was not only not alone or rare, but my experiences were commonplace. Lois Tyson’s book enabled me to utter my thoughts to myself clearly and at least think about them and then voice them (here on the Net mostly) to others. Emily White’s Fast Girls (about how such girls become “fast,” are stigmatized, treated horribly), Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (ought to be required reading for every girl) and especially Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (wherein we learn why there is no recovery if by that is meant forgetting, going back to what one was). These did changed how I read.

Close at hand, near to heart: I have Trollope’s books and all sorts of secondary studies in a book case that stretches from ceiling to floor and is about 4 feet wide — he helps and certainly he changed what I do 🙂 The novel I read first and never forget was Dr Thorne I was 18, it was assigned in a college class; I wanted to write a paper on it but was discouraged by the professor because Trollope was (just) “a mirror of his age. Then re-hooked when the Palliser films were aired on PBS in the 1970s: Jim and I watched and read the books in turn as we went through the series. Then re-hooked in the 1990s with Last Chronicle of Barset in Rome (it got me through) and The Vicar of Bullhampton (given me by my father when I landed in hospital.) I have read and re-read Trollope’s books, and while his depiction of women leaves much to be desired, his attitude towards colonialism shameful, he does see the truth and is candid enough to suggest it. I give him the high compliment of saying he sees the same world Samuel Johnson does.

Over the years I’ve added this or that author who speaks home to me: there has got to be a strengthening offered, a way of coping as well understanding what existence is — especially for women and in books by women. There is a strong perpetual fault-line between women’s and men’s art. Lately it’s been Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (yes I like older books) but before that Elsa Morante (in the Italian) as well as Elena Ferrante’s first couple of books (Days of Abandonment is astonishing), Chantal Thomas (Souffrir), Jenny Diski. Graduate school introduced me to Samuel Johnson (how’s that for a different voice), Anne Finch’s poetry, Charlotte Smith but she is so corrosive; she permits self-expression through her but not the calm acceptance and understanding of how this came to be; now and again in different life-writing, memoirs I find women who do this: Iris Origo, George Sand, George Eliot (though too much violation of natural impulses).

In the first few years after graduate school, I discovered Renaissance women wrote (who knew?) great sonnets, and loved Vittoria Colonna (why I taught myself Italian, though I first loved her poetry in fin-de-siecle French translation), Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth. I discovered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, read all three volumes. Now and again I’ve clutched some contemporary woman author as yes yes yes: Rosamund Lehmann’s mistitled The Echoing Grove comes to mind (The Weather in the Streets might contain the first frank story of an abortion, had just around the time the heroine reads Austen’s Pride and Prejudice); Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children tells such good hard truth but offers not enough comfort.

Well of course each day (almost) I reach something which makes being alive worth while. I love reading about women artists, and reading women’s poetry. Today I was having a deeply enjoyable time reading Martha Bowden’s Descendents of Waverley, a stimulating book about historical romance and novels whose reflections criss-crossed with another set of post-modern historical fictions I had been reading about in another book I’m reviewing: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Cambridge. Between this book and others about historical fictions and films, and reading Booker Prize versions of these, thinking about earlier ones (Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, even the Poldark novels, Walter Scott) I’ve come to the thought that we so love post-modern historical fiction with great dollops of romantic fantasy (time-traveling, re-enactment, erotic giving of the self to a beloved) because through intertextuality they include precious historical documents (books from previous eras), the remnants of a past that have survived which can open worlds of minds and places to us, cultures, while the 20th and 21st century authors, film-makers produce a perspective on this past and our present that is sustaining and comforting today.

Do you love the older images on Virago covers? often I do. Also black-and-white picturesque illustrations.

This Monet is my header picture on Twitter

So that’s what I have been thinking and what I did this Thanksgiving day. It was a day where no further irrational (unless you believe everything must be set up for a few people to make as much profit as possible), vile (deeply inhumane) and despicable (choosing inept people who known nothing about the area except that they want to destroy what’s there) appointments were paraded by the president elect, not even one of his snark jokes. I’ve in effect praised the Post for one of its Thanksgiving day stories, so let me be clear: the rest of their page was advice to those who see what Trump is to be humble before those who voted for this man if we have to sit down to dinner with any of them: the overt theory is again they are good deluded people (the old shibboleth of “false consciousness”) and we are to blame for this horror about to unfold because we have been elitist: with such a conclusion, how can the paper’s staff hope ever to help those poultry workers they grieved for on the same page?

So I also remember the lesson of the 1930s when a segment of my then extant family in Europe was rounded up, send to camps and many of them exterminated or died of hellish treatment or were shot. I’ve saved for last two books, both slender. The first a sine qua non for a 20th century reader: Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (if you can in the Italian, but if not the English translation is good). I read these (bound together as one book) when I was teaching myself Italian (I was about 44). Indirect, but saying the same thing is Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which each time I was given the second half of British Literature to teach I assigned as our penultimate read.

Miss Drake


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When I was 17 I began to find myself, who I was and what I liked to do. I did this by taking a 2 and 1/2 hour trip into Manhattan from where I lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, twice or three times a week. I found that at 11 in the morning twice a week the Metropolitan Museum of Art had art lectures — or so I thought them. I just loved these, mostly on Renaissance paintings as I recall. I’d never experienced that kind of talk before. I went faithfully for months and months. At the time I realized the women who did this began to recognize me and if I asked questions, they were particularly nice. I remember best how each of them would say how the Met had all these paintings or other art “downstairs” in the basement and no one got to see them. Nowadays we do because the building has expanded and the Met is willing to show painting that would have at one time been dismissed as inferior. It was a great shame just to leave them there.

Well, in the spirit of taking a picture up from the basement that would have at one time been left unseen, invisible, here’s a lovely Victorian landscape that I can see illustrating a Trollope novel (Hulme’s life span is almost coterminous with Trollope’s too): it is the sort of thing you would displayed in an exhibit in the Met today — if they had it:

Frederick William Hulme - Lakes in Rivington
Frederick William Hulme (1816-184), Lakes in Rivington

Around the same time my father told me about a theater in Manhattan that played art and foreign films called The Thalia. It was on 96th Street on the Upper West Side. He thought I might like some of the films there. At the time the word film transformed the adventure into something more than entertainment. I’d go on weekends, Saturday or Sunday. Once a week. I remember seeing King and Country, Master and Servant, The Afternoon of a Faun, Viridiniana, a passionate Spanish Wuthering Heights. There were half-mad German films, and John Gabin in French films. So at least three times a week back and forth for hours I was going into Manhattan and participating in its life this way. This was in 1963.

I’m remembering this now because I went alone. I didn’t think about not having to please someone else’s taste or worry if he (I had a husband, a husband!) or she (a rarity for me as I had no girlfriends) was enjoying the experience. I simply knew no one who would have liked those films or would have gone to such lectures. I’m wishing I could experience that innocence of perspective again since it is this kind of satisfaction once again, 52 years later, that I try to have. I take myself to films, to concerts, museum shows, plays, lectures, even operas. I can’t. What was such a revelation to me at 17 is now what I grew accustomed to do as a matter of course for decades with Jim. I was singularly uncritical when I was 17. I’ve had a companion all these years, 45, and since getting onto the Net more than 20 years ago have understood the world as made up of pairs of people, people in social groups when they do things together, and have myself been part of such groups offline. I’ve lost my unself-consciousness and my unawareness of my differences from others. Today I’d be aware of the docents in the Metropolitan Museum puzzling over me. I was not, then. But I can’t undo what has now been woven into my perspective.

I find myself asking if my father meant to help me out, saw I didn’t know what to do with my life once school or paid work for the day was over. The following year I was able to switch from the School of General Studies at Queens College (night-time courses), to the BA program (I had gotten all A’s in my courses) during the day. The women in the office told me I could go for $25 a term — nearly free! My mother had taken to giving me $40 a month at the time. Our rent (remember I had a husband in my apartment with me, and pace Gaskell’s Deborah in Cranford he didn’t much get in the way), my rent, I say, was low. I ate hardly anything at all. Queens College was two buses away from my apartment. So I quit my job as a legal secretary for the Federal Aviation Agency to go to college full-time. How proud and glad I was to do that; I understood, felt it was a privilege I’d almost missed.

It was summer and I took two Shakespeare courses, the first and second half, each 6 weeks. The classes met 2 or 3 times a week, and in each we read 10 (!) plays. I loved them, and read them over and over. My first college paper was on The Winter’s Tale. Well, one day my father came over to my apartment and said, Would you like to go to see plays by Shakespeare in Central Park, the Delacorte theater. “Yes.” That summer I saw three with him, waiting patiently on line together from about 4 o’clock on. He took off time from work to meet me there. Now I can watch great Shakespearean productions on my BBC iplayer, but alas in the DC area there is nothing like the Delacorte which is still going strong in NYC. This week I found a still, from the first of the two cycles of the Hollow Crown, of my favorite Julie Walters (Calendar Girls anyone?) as Mistress Quickly and Maxine Peake (she was Miss Wade in Little Dorrit and does a great deal with almost silent role as) Doll Tearsheet:

Promotional shot for Henry IV

That first year I became an English major: I never doubted I wanted to do anything else, but I took art history courses as a minor. These were better than the Metropolitan museum lectures I had to admit but along similar lines. They were held in very old “Spanish-style” buildings with no air-conditioning (little heat either), and one teacher was my especial favorite. She smoked in class and allowed people in class to smoke. She would bring in stacks of frames with pictures and put them up on the screen in front of the class and go ecstatic over them. She’d get ash all over herself in her enthusiasm. It was delightful.

I made my first friend in a long time. Her name was Leslie, she had two young children and lived not far away from the college on a small income. She was not much older than me despite the two children, and we became friends because we were both English majors taking art courses. As chance had it that first year we were in a few of one another’s classes. I wish I could remember more from ages 17 to 19; I feel there are gaps. This was a time of no or little sleep for me, and I was very very thin (78 pounds, 5 stone 5). My first husband tried to teach me to drive, a stick-shift Volkswagon bug, and (foolishly) I resisted this. I felt I didn’t need to and didn’t foresee how I’d ever live anywhere else but NYC.

Years later, when I was 28 (now married to Jim, my beloved husband of 45 years, who I usually refer to by the words “my husband”) my father had to teach me to drive, a partial stick-shift Volkswagon bug. We’d go up and down Broadway past Central Park, and then round the highways, across the bridges, and then back to Queens, where he lived and then onto Seaman Avenue at the top of Manhattan, under the Cloisters itself where I then lived with Jim, and our dog, Llyr. Like Jenny Diski in her Smoking Around America I still rode trains a lot. The year I was 17 I also walked endlessly, around the city, all over Manhattan, took buses between boroughs — one very long trip every once in a while from Kew Gardens to the Cloisters at the top of Manhattan. It was so beautifully quiet there, with a herb garden, and on Tuesday late mornings concerts of early modern music. At age 28 I just walked up the hill, with Jim mostly, but sometimes with Llry, and we’d go to the yearly festival, eat semi-medieval food, watch play-jousting and go inside to see the tapestries.

I think I miss not remembering between ages 17 and 19 what I read or the specific courses I took and what I did at night-time. All the writing on-line nowadays helps me to remember and again to compensate the strong contemporary novel I’m reading just now is Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love, a kind of re-do of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust. A pattern in both and one I find in 18th century Scottish and other post-colonial women’s texts is a depiction of generations of women where at least one is gripped by, returns to, is swallowed up by the traditional culture and her love for a specific man. Anna Winterbourne (the Victorian heroine to whom this happens) begins her journey after she is widowed and begins to be allured by John Frederick Lewis’s orientalist paintings (1804-1876 — Emily Weekes’s art biography, Cultures Crossed is helping bring back respect for these paintings):

The Harem

The Arab

Prawer presents the vanishing of the 19th century heroine into India as a mystery, and rejoices at her 20th century heroine’s decision to have a baby and utterly alter her life to become a mother. Soueif is already doing better than that: as it opens, her tale-teller, Amal, is a divorced woman who has immured herself as a writer for some 20 years and it seems that there is going to be some accounting for why through this second pattern of withdrawal, and there are several other women: Isabel, a young woman in her early twenties who’s a journalist and has found the papers, her widowed quietly distraught mother, Jasmine, lives in some kind of home in NYC (of all places, how did she end up there?). Several of their brothers and sons have been egregiously murdered through the ferocious colonialist and local wars or just died young. The text seems to me so like the earlier women’s novels I’ve been reading, only so much more aware of the source of its patternings.

I had stopped watching commercial TV at age 13 or so (I’ve not seen any TV situation comedy or drama series since 1959). But that year (1964), the first I went full-time to college, I do remember watching with my father, Play of the Week, some filmed play would air every night (like “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9, Metromedia) over a few months: Medea with Judith Anderson, The Waltz of the Toreadors, the best Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen (bitter, melancholy, dark and angry). He’d come over once a week and we’d watch together. (I don’t know if I’ve said: I have no brothers or sisters. So I was his only child.) The year I was 18.

This past Tuesday night I went to the Kennedy Center to hear Fiona Shaw read poetry — she enacted it really. I heard people in the elevator after marveling over how she’d memorized the poems. Well she does that when she acts on stage or in a film. To me what was marvelous was the way she acted them out, read them, and her passing comments about the poets. Her choices were from Yeats, Emily Dickinson (though it was supposed to be Irish poetry) and Seamus Heaney. She did a combination of famous, and rarely read aloud poems. One was this (I leave the middle out):

After great pain a formal feeling comes —
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs …
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow —
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

I was reading Charlotte Smith today, the 18th century poet, her novel Marchmont and her poetry, so moving. I told how I came to in the early 1980s and how nowadays her texts are just about all available. One poem today which swirls around a ruined castle on the cliffs of Channel projected a vision which is relevant to the way European gov’ts are treating the refuges their own ruthless policies have made. A few passages:

Chaotic pile of barren stone,
That Nature’s hurrying hand has thrown,
    Half-finish’d, from the troubled waves;
On whose rude brow the rifted tower
Has frown’d, thro’ many a stormy hour,
    On this drear site of tempest-beaten graves.

Sure Desolation loves to shroud
His giant form within the cloud
    That hovers round thy rugged head;
And as thro’ broken vaults beneath,
The future storms low-muttering breathe,
    Hears the complaining voices of the dead …

On the bleak hills, with flint 0′ erspread,
No blossoms rear the purple head;
    No shrub perfumes the Zephyrs’ breath,
But o’er the cold and cheerless down
Grim Desolation seems to frown,
    Blasting the ungrateful soil with partial death.

Here the scathed trees with leaves half-drest,
Shade no soft songster’s secret nest,
    Whose spring-notes soothe the pensive ear;
But high the croaking cormorant flies,
And mews and awks with clamorous cries
    Tire the lone echoes of these caverns drear.

Perchance among the ruins grey
Some widow’d mourner loves to stray,
    Marking the melancholy main
Where once, afar she could discern
O’er the white waves his sail return
    Who never, never now, returns again!

On these lone tombs, by storms up-torn,
The hopeless wretch may lingering mourn,
    Till from the ocean, rising red,
The misty Moon with lurid ray
Lights her, reluctant, on her way,
    To steep in tears her solitary bed.

Hence the dire Spirit oft surveys
The ship, that to the western bays
    With favouring gales pursues its course;
Then calls the vapour dark that blinds
The pilot-calls the felon winds
    That heave the billows with resistless force.

Commixing with the blotted skies,
High and more high the wild waves rise,
    Till, as impetuous torrents urge,
Driven on yon fatal bank accurst,
The vessel’s massy timbers burst,
    And the crew sinks beneath the infuriate surge.

There find the weak an early grave,
While youthful strength the whelming wave
    Repels; and labouring for the land,
With shorten’d breath and upturn’d eyes,
Sees the rough shore above him rise,
    Nor dreams that rapine meets him on the strand.

And are there then in human form
Monsters more savage than the storm,
    Who from the gasping sufferer tear
The dripping weed?-who dare to reap
The inhuman harvest of the deep,
    From half-drown’d victims whom the tempests spare?

This week we again saw hundreds and hundreds of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And there was again a photo of a drowned toddler, this time the body craddled in the arms of a male volunteer who was part of a team trying to rescue these people.


Some of those who survive are taken to these barren prison camps of tents, and then shipped back. So in the 18th century we find the same kind of thing occurring around the time of revolutions in the 1790s around the channel (beyond smuggling). Smith precedes the poem by a paragraph about the 1790s as an “alarmist” era and how trivial things are being treated in what we’d call paranoid style to whip up treason trials, kill writing careers, and imprison people. This is the first reference backing Kenneth Johnston’s thesis in his book Pitt’s Reign of Alarm (and “a lost generation”) outside the texts (many admittedly from Wordsworth to Blake) he quotes in his book.

I meant to garden but just as I went out it began to rain, and as I had hurt my big toe very badly (stubbed it when I excitedly prevented a cat from playing with the wires in my workroom), I gave it up. Tonight I watched Part 4 of Bondarchuk’s courageous and astoundingly ambitious War and Peace — which Smith’s poetry could be inserted into, if Tolstoy were of her political complexion. I’ll be writing about this one and two other film adaptations of Tolstoy’s masterpiece (1972 BBC by Jack Pulman, 2015 BBC by Andrew Davies) soon. I am deeply absorbed by all three and have been watching them over and over. I’m on my third round of the Pulman mini-series (the best), my second on Andrew Davies and my first of the Russian one (it’s partly dubbed in English, two different sets of subtitles, and has the original French and Russian in there too). Later this summer on Trollope19thStudies three of us are going to read Tolstoy’s book together and discuss it as we go along.

I need no longer get on a train for 2 and 1/2 hours to do what makes being alive worth that pain Emily speaks of, and sometimes it is so strong. But I was also unknowing, had an innocence that cut me off: I didn’t know how to function, but was also shielded by having no sense of common expectations so I knew happiness more easily, more simply.

At the opening of War and Peace Pierre Bezukov (Paul Dano) and Helene Kuragin (Tuppence Middleton) when young, relatively unexperienced and thus unknowing (216 War and Peace)

Miss Drake

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