Barcelona

My Spanish experiences are more Andalucian than Catalunyan, so, here, a rose from the Alhambra for the victims in Barcelona.

¡Ay, cómo lloran y lloran,
¡ay! ¡ay! cómo están llorando!

Emma Beddington on blogging:

It turns out I love writing. It is such a pleasure, so much so that it seems bizarre to me that I haven’t ever tried it before. . . . it has always seemed like a distant dream or an idea for retirement. Being a writer is just a fantasy, impossibly difficult and inaccessible, something you daydream about. How do people do that? . . . . But of course, the Internet has changed everything, cracking open a closed shop: online writing is exploding. The blogs I read are almost exclusively by people who have no professional writing experience and they are fresh and unguarded and funny. . . . I feel caught up in that excitement and I write all the time, in notebooks and in my head, late at night and on my lunch break. I am full of words.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French (Macmillan, 2016), pp. 264-5.

Sadly, this book is not (yet?) available in the US. I got it this summer in the UK. Highly recommend! You can order it via Amazon.co.uk.

At last, August

July seemed like a very long month, perhaps because I was so busy. But the last three days of it also seemed very long, perhaps because I wasn’t trying to do very much, which I think is the secret of extending time. I kept thinking, “Is it still July? It’s still July. There’s some summer left. Wow.” I was surprised both that the trees and flowers were so late-summer looking, rather than early-summer as when I left (i.e., the trip was All A Dream and I was only “gone” one night), and that the season wasn’t even later (I was in Faerie and time stood still, or flowed more slowly, there than here). But here we are, on schedule.

The garden is shaggy but recognizable. Both creeping bellflower and bishop’s weed are making some attempts to return, but these attempts are as yet feeble and so I am pleased that I have made such progress against them. The mulch I spread lavishly before leaving is hosting lots of shoots grown up from bird seed, not to mention now being spread lavishly over the patio, because the beds need some sort of edging to hold the mulch in place. It has clearly been at least a couple of weeks since anyone mowed the lawn, and the shrubbery is growing enthusiastically over the walks it borders. On the whole, though, the garden has held up fairly well.

The house . . . Sir John has nearly emptied the TV room, and presided over some repairs, and moved around Stuff that needed to be moved so that those things could be worked on. Progress has definitely been made. And yet there is still a lot to do. There are more repairs to organize, more boxes to pack, and all the packed boxes still need to leave for rented storage space. I had hoped a lot of that might happen in my absence.

This experience, combined with a party we went to this weekend, have me thinking a lot about order, chaos, and stuff. Things. Objects. I feel like we have a lot of stuff. I am none too good at getting rid of stuff once it’s in the house. On the other hand, I do fairly well at not bringing it home in the first place. The friends who hosted the party have lived in the same four-bedroom house for probably 30 years, during which they raised one child and did a lot of traveling. They are musical and enjoy folk dancing; they read widely; they enjoy cooking and gardening. Every room is crammed with books, CDs, and souvenirs. The music room (probably originally intended as a small dining room), which faces south, has a windowsill overflowing with plants, pictures on the walls, multiple smaller instruments besides the piano, books, sheet music, and more. The family room has three large bookcases (not shelves, multi-shelf bookcases) full of cookbooks, as well as many and varied souvenirs of travels. The living room holds the music library as well as a multi-shelf case of small dolls in various national dance costumes and other dance souvenirs. And so on, with every room. Jet-lagged and needing to be quiet for a bit, I wandered around trying to find a place away from people for a few minutes, and the amount of stuff all over made me feel like there was nowhere to be quiet even when there weren’t people in the room. It’s not really into hoarding territory, by my standards (and my dad really is a hoarder, so I do know what that looks like). The house is livable and safe. But it does testify to a life lived rather than curated.

We also have friends both of whom are immigrants, and whose house shows that they left a lot behind when they came here. Everything is chosen. The furniture is colorful, the walls are white, a few choice objects are on display. It’s a restful house. To be sure, I don’t know what the private rooms are like. I have never seen them. Maybe they’re the house’s Id.

We’re somewhere in the middle. Books are our particular vice. Sir John is untidy and leaves piles of paper around much as a snail trails slime. Cat paraphernalia (beds, toys, scratching posts) also appear in every room. As do the cats, though we’ve cut down significantly there: when we had five, it really did seem like there was another cat everywhere you looked. Anyway, I’m trying to live with the current state of chaos: boxes in the living room, a stack of chairs (which we have agreed to de-accession) in the dining room, Sir John’s piles, my not-quite-unpacked luggage in my study, along with a single box of to-be-packed things that I need to pack. Behind the boxes, I’m beginning to see a pleasingly cleaned-up version of our house: what we might look like if we lived a curated life, rather than one in which Sir John can’t keep up with his mail and both of us are always accumulating more books. I prefer the boxes to the crammed shelves of our friends’ house. I hope there will come a time when we can cut back more on the stuff, yet keep what is important to us.

I guess that’s what this rambling post comes down to: trying to work out what is important. I know, people (cats) and experiences are important, and the rest is just stuff. But some stuff matters more than others, and I don’t like regretting the loss of objects I was too hasty about letting go. Once I’ve lived without some of it for awhile, we’ll see whether I say “Why was I keeping that?” or “Hello, there you are!” when we unpack the stored boxes.

In the meantime, August: balancing the work (finish summer projects, prepare for fall), the house stuff (as above), the life (take a week off and have some proper vacation time). I hope this, too, will be a long month.

Margaret Forster:

For years I’d been trained the way mothers of small children are, not to waste a moment of child-free time, and so I’d always got straight down to it, and the habit had carried on even after there was no real need to be so concentrated. But now, I was tired. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t produce the ten A4 pages in a morning which I’d been used to. I tried to persuade myself that, through being so slow now, every word would mean more, be more tellingly crafted. Not true. My old, rapid, if careless, style of writing was better by far than the halting, lame stuff I was turning out, crawling hesitantly over one mere page in three hours. Why bother doing it? Why expend precious energy, of which there was so little, on writing, when it would be better conserved for other things? Yet each morning the lure of the desk and the pen drew me up to that room, and I gave into it. Sometimes, sitting was painful, which made sticking to the writing ridiculous. It wasn’t even as though I thought I was turning out anything special enough to justify this regime—it was simply that for some strange reason I wanted to be there, doing it.

My Life in Houses, pp. 254-5.

Quick check-in

I’m not dead, but I still think I’ve gone to heaven. Though I have to do a fair amount of food-shopping and prep (thanks to dietary restrictions; eating out is tricky), all other housekeeping is off my shoulders. Sir John is discovering the joys of paying household bills and wondering if there’s enough money in the joint account to cover unexpected repair bills (there is, because I expected them, but this is not his usual wheelhouse). I spend long hours in the library. My students are enthusiastic and independent. As JaneB said, it’s the life of the 1950s male academic, and it’s quite the life; one sees why they would want to hang on to their privileges.

The flip side

As in, “See you on the flip side.” I’m on it. My life has flipped to UK mode, a new time, a different setting, a life with students and colleagues but no husband or cats, a life with work and walking but without housework or gardening. The time is going all too quickly and I know I’ll be back in my US life before I know it, but in the meantime there is that amazing library, interspersed with sight-seeing (old churches) and cultural events (live music, theatre).

I really must create a blogroll in the space for it at the bottom of the page. There are the ones I’ve read for years and those I’ve read for months and some others I discovered only weeks or even days ago. Another Eleanor said “Nowadays, I use the academic style to hide behind. I have lots of things to say but they are not always acceptable. I stifle the urge to write publicly because what I have to say is inflammatory, to me and to others. Betrayal, loathing, exclusion, hate, love. Academic writing is a mask.”

I have found my own academic writing to be surprisingly revealing. Coded, certainly. I doubt it would say the same things to other people that it says to me. I never realize, at the time I am working on a project, what it really is about, what I am working out by writing such and such an article. Each time, I believe instead that I have finally finished working out my issues and am at last doing scholarship that just interests me. When articles appear in print, years later, and I re-read them from a later perspective, I find that, after all (as Z said in this thread), my unconscious was working on my behalf.

I am enjoying seeing my students’ worlds expand. They are observant, thoughtful, determined to experience as much as they can while they are here. I want to emulate them. I have work to do, but I will not spend all my time in the library (though I love it there).

Oh, London . . .

I suppose it’s mainly that in any large city, you’re going to have a certain number of disgruntled nutjobs who think violence is a good way to solve problems. Nonetheless, I’m sorry about the latest incident. One damned thing after another.

The right to concentrate

In a thread at Jonathan’s about procrastination (or whatever not-working is), Profacero said “one needs to feel one has the right to concentrate, and to the time that goes into struggle with material.”

If one doesn’t naturally feel that, one needs reminders, internal or external.

I don’t think I had trouble concentrating, or feeling that I had a right to concentrate, when I was in elementary school, high school, or college. My parents emphasized that school was my job, and let me do my homework in peace. So at least for me, this is not an early trauma (I don’t think), but one that developed during a particular un-peaceful time in my life, which was also a difficult time for my mother.

Between college and graduate school, after several months living in another country, I returned to my parents’ house. My mother was needy and possessive. She had missed me. She was going to miss me more. Although I didn’t know this at that time, my parents’ marriage was particularly rocky at this point. I was very anxious, waiting for acceptances from graduate schools, working several part-time jobs, studying Latin in my few spare hours, because I knew it would be important for my graduate work and I had exaggerated my competence on my applications.

My mother interrupted me frequently when I was trying to study. She did not respect my time. She no longer thought, apparently, that school (or preparation for it) was my job. My job, in her eyes, was looking after her. I was 22 and I thought I was all grown up. I wanted to be compassionate. I was somewhat flattered that she wanted me to be my friend, although I also wanted to live my own life and have her live hers. I tried to answer her patiently and compassionately. I always wound up furious and then self-reproachful for losing my temper.

I wasn’t even trying to write, just to study. I still find studying languages soothing and I think I am less likely to self-interrupt when reading in another language or working on vocabulary than I am when researching and writing. But when I read Z’s comment, that was the time in my life that I immediately zeroed in on as a source of my intermittent sense that I do not have the right to concentrate, that I am to be at other people’s disposal. I’m not sure how to get back that earlier sense that studying is my job, but I wish I could feel that way again, as a regular thing.

This may be a silly idea, but perhaps it could come via clothing . . . long ago, maybe at one of Dr Crazy’s blogs, there was a discussion of writing costumes (special writing outfits, whether super-comfy or dressed up). Maybe if I dressed as my teenage self or even my childhood self, I could sink into that happy, absorbed “now I am doing my homework!” feeling. How much do external cues help? I would hope that the more I access that self, the more accessible it would become, without costume.

(I am so tired of dealing with my mommy issues. It seems to be the case that when my life changes in significant ways, the issues that seemed to have been resolved come back for another round, and the “new me” has to work through them again.)

A week on

Somehow I didn’t do one of these posts last weekend, because . . . Life Stuff . . . or just general feebleness. And now the quotation I want to quote about writing seems silly and trivial, but let us imagine it being offered in a stiff-upper-lip, there-will-always-be-an-England sort of spirit, so I can register world events yet carry on with my trivial semi-academic posts.

This is from Robert Liddell’s book Elizabeth and Ivy, about his friendships with the novelists Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett; he is quoting a letter written by art historian Roger Hinks “about a meeting with Ivy at Madge Ashton’s when there was some talk about Angus Wilson.”

“Madge said: ‘I hear he wrote it [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes] in four months, between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.’ ‘Really?’ observed Ivy; ‘one cannot imagine anyone doing anything in the afternoon between 2 and 4, except hoping that tea would be at 4 rather than at 5.’ There was talk about how many words people wrote an hour. ‘How many do you write, Miss Compton-Burnett?’ said someone. ‘Ten,’ said Ivy, in the tone of an editor saying that this correspondence was now closed.”

Robert Liddell, Elizabeth and Ivy (London: Peter Owen, 1986), 54-55.

This does rather illustrate my life lately, except that I feel more despairing than editorial.

Clothes in books!

I recently discovered this awesome blog, from which I am getting many ideas for fun reading: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/

It also inspired me to post the following passage from a 1930s novel that I read recently when I was supposed to be working. (I was minding my own business, looking for books about something else entirely, when this one leapt from the library shelves into my arms . . . what could I do?) It recounts a day in the life of an MP, his family and his servants, and a nearby poor family, one of whose members applies for a job in the MP’s household. It has a lot of fascinating quotidian details, including clothing for the lady of the house:

“Mary went to the cupboard and fetched the two-piece grey stockinet dress with the white net frills sewn in round the V-neck, and put out the grey stockings and the black patent shoes with steel buckles, and got out a clean handkerchief and put it ready on the dressing table. When Mary had gone Blanche got out of bed and put on her slippers and went to the washstand behind the screen. . . . [She] took off her nightdress and put on a pair of thin pink woolen combinations, and then a white batiste chemise edged with Valenciennes, and stays and stockings, and white batiste drawers, and over them a pair of black satin knickers which buttoned at the knees. She never wore crepe de Chine underclothes because you couldn’t boil them when they were washed, and linen or batiste was really much daintier, and she wore a clean set every day. She put on a grey silk petticoat over the knickers and then slipped on a muslin dressing jacket and sat down at the dressing table and began to brush her hair.”

Sylvia Thompson, Breakfast in Bed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934), pp. 128-9.