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.

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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.