Reta Winters

Reta Winters is a writer, in Carol Shields’s novel Unless (HarperCollins, 2002). She lists the items she has written, with commentary, beginning with

  1. A translation and introduction to Danielle Westerman’s book of poetry, Isolation, April 1981 . . . . I am a little uneasy about claiming Isolation as my own writing, but Dr. Westerman, doing one of her hurrying, over-the-head gestures, insisted that translation, especially of poetry, is a creative act. Writing and translating are convivial, she said, not oppositional, and not at all hierarchical. Of course, she would say that. My introduction to Isolation was certainly creative, though, since I had no idea what I was talking about. I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. (pp. 3-4)

I’ve met that worm. What a good name for it.

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She said, “I’m tired of this war”

“I want the kind of work I had before.”

Leonard Cohen, “Joan of Arc”

I was listening to the “Cohen Live” album on the way home last night, and now I have this line in my head on repeat. It’s not my favorite song (kind of icky, actually, but it’s still Leonard), but terribly apposite right now. Yesterday was the kind of busy, focused day on which I never got around to looking at the news, so today’s headlines about California wildfires came as a shock. Fire leaping 101 in Santa Rosa? That’s six lanes of asphalt, plus the shoulders and center. I’ve been trying to stay centered and positive over here, but there are too many fronts right now. I may have to listen to “Sisters of Mercy” for an hour or two.

More local news: rainbow edition

One reason I spend a lot of time at the gym is that usually it is either Too Hot or Too Cold to exercise outside. Right now, we’re in that sweet season in which Outside is actually pleasant, so I often take a long walk instead of going to the gym.

Yesterday I put off exercise till I got some work done, and then it was raining hard and supposed to keep raining until after dark. I tried to talk myself into the gym, but couldn’t do it. Eventually I suited up for a walk in the rain, and set out.

I headed west, and noticed that it was starting to clear in that direction, though rain was still falling on me. It didn’t occur to me that that meant a rainbow until a woman who had stepped out onto her porch to take a picture pointed it out to me. It was a wonderful rainbow, a full arch, with a second, paler one besides. I admired, and kept walking. My phone buzzed: Sir John had spotted the rainbow when he took the recycling out, and wanted to make sure I got to see it. No sooner had I ended the call than three small boys, aged perhaps 4-7, very excitedly told me about the rainbow. They were so excited that they could hardly listen to me agreeing that it was a rainbow and beautiful. I met another photographer and a pair of 8(ish)-year-old dog walkers, less vocal, but all very pleased with the double rainbow.

It was beautiful. People are wonderful in their appreciation of natural beauty, and their eagerness to share it with each other. I’m glad that I went for a walk in the rain.

Can’t. Even.

I used to dislike the phrase “I just can’t even.” I’d snarl about needing a main verb. Over time, though, I’ve come to find the phrase very useful, expressive precisely in its lack of verb. W/r/t national news, I can’t even. WTF. OMG.

So today I bring you some very, very local news.

I saw the sunrise. It was pretty. Maybe not red, but very bright pink. Sure enough, within a couple of hours we had a brief rainsquall, thus proving the old adage: “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” (Substitute “shepherd” if you live inland.)

Glendower continues to prefer minced turkey to other types of cat food, and ate up his breakfast promptly.

Reina knocked down a spring-loaded curtain rod and freaked out, but once I re-hung it, she returned to looking out the window.

I have loaded my car with items to take to Goodwill later. The vet tech to whom I am going to give some items for her community theater group is off today, so I won’t drop those things off until Thursday.

I expect to go visit an old neighbor this afternoon, to help give Neighbor Catboy subcutaneous fluids. Poor Neighbor Catboy is not in good shape, and I am sad about this. I have to keep reminding myself that he is 12 or 13, has had a loving home since he was a kitten, that he got to spend his whole life with his littermate, and on the whole has had a good life. Has he had the standard of vet care we provide our cats? No, but by most people’s standards he has done just fine. For longtime readers, this is the cat that Basement Cat always hated. In “Breaking Cat News” terms, he’s Tommy to Basement Cat’s Elvis, although since our BC never got out, they never achieved the rapprochement that Elvis and Tommy managed. (“Breaking Cat News” is now at GoComics, so if you are unfamiliar with this delightful comic, you can read it there.) Anyway, I can at least provide both sympathy and practical help to Neighbor Catboy’s person, who is distraught about his failing health. That’s a small, local bit of bad news that I can actually do something about.

Yesterday was a good writing day: 500 new words and a lot of editing of about 1000 old ones, for a decent new introduction to an essay I’ve been revising. Now I have to insert all the new pieces into the old essay and massage the transitions and check the notes very carefully to make sure I’ve kept all the important references while jamming in a batch of new ones.

Last night on my way home I stopped at Trader Joe’s. I bought one item, a bottle of wine. The guy in front of me had one item, a pint of ice cream. The woman behind me had one large chocolate bar. It looked like we all needed a little something to get through the evening. I expect later today I’ll be the one stocking up on chocolate. It’s important to have on hand in case of exposure to Dementors. In fact, we should probably all be dosing ourselves regularly as a preventive measure.

Holding environment

From a New Yorker article about Martha Nussbaum:

“When Nussbaum is at her computer writing, she feels as if she had entered a ‘holding environment’—the phrase used by Donald Winnicott to describe conditions that allow a baby to feel secure and loved. Like the baby, she is ‘playing with an object,’ she said. ‘It’s my manuscript, but I feel that something of both my parents is with me. The sense of concern and being held is what I associate with my mother, and the sense of surging and delight is what I associate with my father.'”

Rachel Aviv, “Captain of Her Soul,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2016, 34-43, at 40-41.

Given some of the things the essay says about Nussbaum’s parents and her relationship to them, I’m a little surprised that writing is so comfortable for her if she feels they’re with her then, but never mind that. Maybe what’s with her is her sense of the ideal parents. The quotation did make me wonder how to create such a sense of delight and playfulness. I’ve had it at various times, but it comes and goes. It seems strongest when I write every day.

Sleep begets sleep. Writing begets writing.

I scrapped the 450 words I wrote yesterday, but they made today’s 494 better words possible, and now I’ve written two days in a row, and starting to feel some enjoyment in place of the dread that was building up.

A happy ending

Yesterday was a little frustrating. Not a day when everything went wrong (it didn’t), but a day when most things did not go as planned. The urgent got done, at the expense of the important. We were a little late to a performance. The performance itself was good, but the story was harrowing, so we didn’t enjoy our night out as much as we hoped to. I remembered to silence my phone during it, and later found that I had voicemail from PetWatch.

Of course all three of our cats were present and accounted for, so if a cat chipped to me was found, it would be a feral or a stray that I trapped at some point. Because I’m a worrier and because Sabra gave us so much trouble while we had her, I feared that somehow her chip hadn’t transferred to her new people and that she had gone walkabout again. But no, it was a feral cat I trapped, neutered, and released some five years ago. For most of that time, he’s been cared for by a human (let’s call them Jamie), and I guess now the cat is tame enough that Jamie was able to get him to a vet and find the chip. Jamie wants to keep the cat. I don’t want the cat (no more cats in this household till Basement Cat is no longer with us; it’s just too hard on him, and he makes it hard on the others), but I am thrilled to know that he has found a good home with people who like him and whom he trusts.

TNR, people. It works. Feral cats can look after themselves, living mainly on rodents who would otherwise be pests. (I know bird people worry about cats catching birds, but cats can’t fly, and birds can. For four years I’ve watched (and discouraged) our neighbor’s outdoor cat stalking birds at our feeder; once he managed to get a sparrow. Once. In four years.) A cat who has been neutered is not begetting or bearing more kittens. A cat who has been neutered will be much less likely to get into fights, and will need a smaller territory, and so be less likely to get killed by cars or coyotes. Cats who have been treated kindly by humans, even briefly, are more likely to find themselves a steady gig living under the porch of someone who feeds them, and then will be even less likely to go after birds. Feral cats, as opposed to strays who are dependent on humans, are rarely sick or disease vectors: their mamas teach them to avoid eating things that can give them worms. If they get their shots when they’re trapped and neutered, they’ll be even more disease-resistant. And my experience shows that they do often wind up as someone’s pet: of five cats I trapped, one was a stray who went back home, two have found themselves homes (I guess I never blogged the first one, so see below), and two are unaccounted for. The survival of this one makes me hopeful that the other two have also got themselves looked after, just by people who haven’t had them scanned (or maybe the cats are still too shy to come in). Here are some links about TNR if you want to read more: Alley Cat Allies. Best Friends. The Anti-Cruelty Society.

The first story of a cat who found himself a home: Years ago, we TNR’d a pair of siblings. About nine months later, I got a call; one of them, chipped to me, had been brought in by people whose porch he’d been living under. They’d been feeding him and trying to tame him, but he’d remained skittish until the day he came to their door meowing loudly. Some unspeakable jerk had shot him with a BB gun, and he turned for help to the people who were kind to him. They were happy to take him in and pay his vet bills, and I was happy to sign the chip over to them. That cat is now an indoor cat (yay indoor cats!) who gets along with their dog, other cat, and children. I love happy endings.

A ghostly love story

Since the academic blogosphere, at least my corner of it, has become both more sparsely populated and quieter than in its heyday, I’ve been branching out to gardening blogs and book blogs, such as Clothes In Books (who has almost exactly my taste in reading material) and Leaves and Pages. Thanks to the latter, I found a delightfully comic ghost story, Tryst, by Elswyth Thane, who IRL was Helen Ricker from Iowa. Other reviews here and here. Thane mostly wrote historical fiction set in the US, so I’m a little surprised I didn’t run across her books when I was a child, as they sound like the sort of thing my school and public libraries would have had a lot of. Maybe I did read them and I just don’t remember. Fairly early on I decided that I preferred British history and fiction; American lit seemed so full of back-breaking farm labor, immigrant families and families impoverished by the Great Depression, wars interrupting young lives (Revolution and Civil as well as WW I and II, which obviously do interrupt British lives), not enough time travel or larking about in boats.

Well, anyway, Tryst. The ghost heads straight for his club when he finds himself in London. As you do, I guess, if you’re an Englishman-ghost. I ought not to be snarky; I know the problems of where to be in a city, if you have no office to go to, and you don’t feel like sight-seeing, and it’s the wrong hour to eat. Which of us wouldn’t like to have a club to which to repair at odd hours? And then the kitten, back at the country house Nuns Farthing (seriously? Chaucer is hooting somewhere in the background): “On the hearth-rug, his small tail carried high, Muffin was purring loudly and rubbing himself against friendly legs, about the reality of which he himself had obviously no doubts at all.” I believe absolutely in the kitten. Felines certainly see, hear, and smell many things of which the big dumb hoo-mans are unaware.

The writing is sprightly, and I happily added more hot water to the bathtub several times so I could finish the book in comfort. On careful examination, this fluff dissolves like the bubble-bath. The story takes place in 1938, the book appeared in 1939, and the chap who snuffed it would likely not have survived the war in any case, so we needn’t feel sorry for him. The heroine, Sabrina, is charming, but I can’t see her as nurse, Land Girl, code-breaker, or office worker taking the place of a man at the front. She does take ghosts in stride, so she can rise to occasions, but she doesn’t seem to have many practical skills. Honestly, she’s probably better off out of this world, too. I’m not sure how much the lovers really have in common. He’s 15 years older than she is (okay, Sense and Sensibility, I know), they like the same books, they like cats, I suppose relationships have been built on less, but I’m not wild about the older man/younger woman pairing. I also do not care for brother George’s attempts at Being Masterful with the society girl that the ghost had an “understanding” with, though she’s not so sure, but George’s advances are certainly Of The Period, not unwelcome to the recipient, and don’t go further than a few kisses (George’s mother is in the house and they are all going to have lunch in a minute).

I thought that in some ways Tryst responds to Rebecca (published 1938), with a mysterious country house and a naive young newcomer of a slightly lower class, but Tryst lightens the suspense and substitutes an inscrutable but kindly housekeeper for the formidable Mrs Danvers. (I hated Rebecca, btw, in case that affects your judgment; I dislike all the characters in it about equally, whereas in Tryst they all seem fairly harmless even when misguided.) Given my obsession with houses, devotion to cats, and disdain for annoying yappy dogs, it would have been hard for me not to like this book, even though in the cold light of day I’m poking holes here and there. My verdict: an excellent bathtub read.

Josephine in the British Library

She’d been able to find out about Ferdinand [the bull]’s political history from the internet. It was all there, accessible in seconds. Some of the fun has gone out of scholarship, it’s become too easy. She’s had to work hard to find an excuse to come to the British Library for the day, where she will be happy and at peace for a few hours in the silent company of scholars. But she has found herself a pretext. Maybe in the boxes of uncatalogued and unpublished letters of Hubert Studdert Meade, and in the papers of his old college, and in the manuscript drafts of his translations, she will find something new, something unremarked—about his wife Alice, the forgotten novelist with her uncut pages. . . . The library welcomes her. Her items are waiting for her. She installs herself at her desk, plugs in her lightweight mini-laptop, and begins to browse through the contents of the slim old-fashioned dark-red string-tied cardboard folder and the larger and smarter pale green canvas box.

 

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 250-251.

Josephine makes a serendipitous discovery

She is too tired to embark on reading . . . but she leafs through the illustrations . . . . Amongst them is an arresting and accomplished pencil drawing of an unfamiliar and handsome young man, in an open-necked shirt, wearing an unassuming air of nonchalant gallantry. She glances at the caption, and finds that his name is Valentine Studdert Meade, an unusual name which in itself has no resonance but which nevertheless strikes her with a jolt of recognition. There can’t be all that many Studdert Meades, so he must be connected with her Deceased Wife’s Sister novelist. . . . Here must be a clue to Alice Studdert Meade, in this fairly unlikely place, discovered more or less randomly. This, she says to herself, sadly but with some satisfaction, is Scholarship, in all its triviality. She turns to the index, to discover more about Valentine . . . . Here, so unexpectedly, are clues.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 102-103.

More about Josephine

The libraries mean as much to Josephine as explorations of England mean to her restless friend Fran. They confirm status, confer identity. When Josephine Drummond goes into the libraries that she uses most frequently, she is received with some degree of recognition. Sometimes her books are handed over without her having to request them by name. This doesn’t happen in the British Library in London, though even there she occasionally gets a friendly nod, but in Cambridge she is a familiar. Unlike some old women, she is easily recognisable, even memorable. Tall and pronounced of features, she will never dwindle into a little old lady, with all the conveniences and inconveniences which that status brings. Josephine may think she looks low-key, but she cannot help but look noticeable. She doesn’t look eccentric (or this is her friend Fran’s considered view) but she doesn’t look negligible. Her career hasn’t been distinguished, but has been a career, of a sort, and it’s not quite over yet.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017),pp. 100-101.