The mirror crack’d

The strange thing about my recent trip to my home state was that it didn’t feel like home.

It was beautiful, it was comfortable, if things shake out such that I live there again, that would be fine, but I did not feel the fierce pull of longing that has afflicted me for most of my adult life. I feel like now I can make a rational choice about where I want to live, rather than feeling like I need to get back there.

For years, I felt that I was living in exile (see here, here, and here, for example; I guess now I really mean what I said here). The place I live (where my job is, where Sir John is from) was too flat, too bland, too cold (in winter), too hot and humid (in summer), and too lacking in the kind of flora that I like best. But on this trip back, many of the roads were too narrow and alarmingly twisty, so it seems I’ve adjusted to flat, although the climate and flora were lovely. Some of the people I saw said they could never live with the kind of winter weather I grumble about, and I felt a certain pride that despite my grumbling, I can and do live with it.

Have I spent too long away, and so snapped the thread that stretched back there? Have I finally hardened off to the midwestern climate? I feel free, but this is very strange.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Happiness vs. familiarity

Familiarity breeds, as they say.

But seriously, that feeling of recognition and comfort is not necessarily a good thing. I had to head to the Internet Archive to get this post (via a link from someone’s half-decade-old blog post):

https://web.archive.org/web/20160712082102/http://thephilosophersmail.com/relationships/how-we-end-up-marrying-the-wrong-people/

but I’m glad I read it, not because I married the wrong person but because of all the things we worked through on the way to being the right people for each other, and another reason that will appear below. I’m going to quote the third reason why “we end up marrying the wrong people”:

“Three: We aren’t used to being happy

“We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

“We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.

“As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.

“We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.”

This familiarity is also a significant reason why we live in a house we want to sell. When I walked into it, it felt like home. Not too much so; if it had been more recognizably just like the house I grew up in, I would have run right back out. But enough like that original house to feel familiar and sort of right. I conveniently forgot what very conflicted feelings I have around the whole concept of home in general and about houses of that vintage and style in particular. It took time living here to realize how very heimlich, in a bad way (that is, frustrating in familiar ways), this house actually is. For me. It would be a wonderful house for someone else, with different baggage (or no baggage!). It’s true that I have found it rather therapeutic to correct this house’s problems and to re-make it in the image of a functional relationship rather than the heavily dysfunctional one my parents had. But it would have been a lot cheaper to resume talk therapy!

Next time, I’m going to look for what my adult self actually wants, and not listen to feelings about familiar.

Greensleeves

More interesting bloggers than I am have reviewed this book:

http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2018/02/greensleeves-by-eloise-jarvis-mcgraw.html

Harmonic discord and finding one’s proper key: Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves

http://www.stuckinabook.com/greensleeves-by-eloise-jarvis-mcgraw/

And one or other of those posts, I no longer remember which one, made me check out a local copy of the book last winter for cold-weather comfort reading. Ever since, I’ve meant to do my own post, and I am tired of having it on my mind, so you get it now.

I will not recount the plot, since Moira, Simon, Jenny, Kat, and indeed Amazon will do that for you.

I first read this book when I was maybe ten, and I probably read it a couple more times when I was quite young, say 13 or 14. Then I forgot about it (or at least forgot any details that would let me find it again) until I ran across it in my late 20s and had a lovely nostalgic wallow in some out-of-town library: I can visualize perfectly the room in which I sat but I have no idea what city it was in or why I was there. After that it faded again until last winter. So I have several distinct sets of memories and feelings about it.

At ten, I liked the idea of disguise and trying to find out about other people’s lives. Nothing else about Shannon’s life stuck with me. At that point, I thought she was quite grown up. (She’s 18, well traveled but very young in other ways.) When I found the book in my 20s, the reason for her pretending to be a country girl and working in a diner was the part I rediscovered with pleasure, along with the struggle to figure out who she was and what she wanted to do when the number of available options was confusing. Life is simple when there is One Clear Path to becoming what you know you must be or do; but when you have a lot of talents and a lot of people encouraging you in the direction they think would be best for you, it’s much harder to find your own way.

Back in my early teens, before I ever kissed a boy or had one around to kiss, it was the boys (Dave and Sherry), and Shannon’s reactions to them, that interested me. At that age, I did not want to Do It, but I did want to know what Doing It was like, and how you got around to it, or maybe how you put it off, and Greensleeves was, in a fairly chaste way, reasonably explicit about sexual feelings:

“The plain fact is that I wanted to walk straight into his arms and hang on like a limpet, and for a split second it was perfectly clear to me that I didn’t care a bean for anything else. I knew if I moved one inch toward him right then, I’d get so tangled up in his life that it would take ten years to dislodge me. And I had a vivid picture of what ten years with Dave Kulka would be like—the two of us fighting like wolverines but never able to get free of each other.”

Eventually they do kiss, and at first Shannon likes it, and then the analytic side of her brain kicks in again and she’s revolted, and that’s that. But! There’s still Sherry (George Sherrill), who is much nicer; they’ve been getting to know each other slowly and he is in love with her, wants her to go to college at the same school he attends, wants to marry her. After a lovely day at a summer party, he kisses her:
“And immediately I knew there was no reason at all why he shouldn’t, and every reason why he should. He loved me, I loved him, and people who loved each other kissed each other. What’s more they didn’t hold out on each other, either, or draw inward lines. I must not hold back from Sherry any longer—it wasn’t fair. I suddenly decided that the moment had come to find out whether I was playing for keeps. . . . I obliterated my inward line. I can’t say precisely how I did this; probably I don’t need to. Anybody knows. It’s instinct or something . . . I found out one thing, right away . . . Sherry was as combustible as anybody else, and fully as able as Dave to ignite emotions in me too powerful to control. It was all too easy, and it happened all too swiftly, and the conflagration soon rose high and bright enough to scare us both.”

Okay. That inward line. What the hell was it? What were the electrical sparks with Dave? How was it that she could kiss Sherry without any burning fires until she kissed Dave and then she and Sherry were scaring each other so she thought they’d be married within a year unless she ran away? My poor little pubescent brain really struggled with these questions. Obviously Dave is supposed to be the bad-news guy (a driven artist!) with whom you have chemistry but nothing else, and Sherry is the good, responsible guy, who is smart, and nice, and tends to play it safe rather than take risks. Good husband material: if you want a husband when you’re 18 and think you might want a career of your own if you could get several sets of parents off your back for long enough to work out what you want. Anyway, though I did not really understand how all this worked, it was vaguely reassuring for a young reader: (a) there are nice guys; (b) you can easily tell the difference between them and the bad-news types; (c) crossing that inward line will ignite what Captain Awkward calls pants-feelings for a nice guy whom you like a lot and haven’t really felt sparks about before.

Well. It would be pretty to think so.

Shannon wants so much to marry Sherry that she runs away, doesn’t see him for two years, and at the end of the book is just about to meet him again, now that she’s had two years at a university and “toughened a bit” as well as having some small successes with writing and theater work.

My current 50-something, cynical-old-bat self had very different reactions to this book than any of my younger selves. For one thing, I was highly doubtful about the academic side of Fremont College, Sherry’s studies, and Professor Edmonds, a math prof who tutors Sherry in ancient Greek. In 1968, maybe things were different in academia . . . but I did grow up in a college town; I remember or have heard a lot of bits and pieces about how things were back then, and this book’s details don’t hang together. Sherry thinks that in graduate school “You can really browse around” among courses. Um, no, that’s when you can really get specialized.

Also, 1968: even allowing that that was the publication date, and that the events might be set at some earlier point, it can’t be earlier than the 1950s (given various lifestyle clues), and no man in the book is concerned about the draft. In the ’50s it would have been Korea; in the ’60s, Vietnam. La la la. All the young people are happily being young and even when they have Serious Thoughts About Life and Learning, they’re not thinking that they should go to college (or get married) in order to get a draft deferment.

Again, wildly different from my experience and understanding of that time.

As for Dave and Sherry, the Older Man Dave, at 25, now looks very young indeed to me, though I agree that he’s too old for Shannon and that she did well to steer clear of him at that point in her life. If she were 25 to his 32, however, I’d think they were a good match. Now that I’ve kissed more than a few men, including some friends with whom I tried very hard to step across some inward line, I agree whole-heartedly with Dave: “Things like this don’t happen very often.” Sure, if you’re young and healthy you can work up some sexual energy for lots of people, but the “kick galvanic” (to quote from A. S. Byatt instead of McGraw) is rare. I might have been better off, at 16, and also at 23, had I been able to get the rational side of my brain to kick in about a couple of guys who were really not good for me, despite the amazing chemistry. This is not to say that they were bad boys. They were nice, smart, reasonable people, who eventually married other women and, so far as I know, are living happily ever after. I just mean that in both cases we did spend about five years entangled and fighting like wolverines (at least intermittently), because we were not well matched. I did try, at a couple of other times, to combust with men who seemed like they’d be good partners. I was even engaged to one of them, once, and then I met Mr 23 and the fire actually caught, and there we were.

I should have realized at least by my late teens that a book aimed at teenage girls in an era in which the Pill was pretty new, and abortion was not yet legal, was not going to be a good guide to what to do about sexual feelings. It’s going to pack a message about sublimation inside an attractive package of thinnish plot and breathless narration. I was never particularly convinced by Sherry, and now it annoys me that he wants to make a living at something he’s good at but doesn’t like, and “leave his mind free to go on finding out things he’d no need to know and never meant to use, and wondering how it felt to live in places he might never bother to go to.” I want him to want something. His plan for a life with Shannon also annoys me: that he’d “forget the graduate school notion” (even if he hasn’t a clue what graduate school entails), get a job, earn enough that they can get married after her second year of college, that he’s not really thinking about what she might want to do apart from marry him. In fact, it seems like his notion of marrying Shannon is another way of deferring his dreams of traveling and finding out what it’s like to live in other places.

Dave Kulka has a good idea of what he wants, and what he’s good at, and knows that he works better when he feels like he’s fighting something. This may mean he’ll never be a good choice of husband, but it’s hard to tell. Some people are like that when they’re young, and adaptable enough to find new ways to work once they’re successful. The last word Kulka utters in the book is “interesting.” I now find him the most interesting character. Although the ending seems to allow hope that Shannon and Sherry will finally get together, I think it’s more likely that their meeting will fall flat—both of them having changed in two years—and that Shannon will eventually find a man who suits her both intellectually and physically.

Le pire a été évité

Ballade pour prier Notre-Dame
Dame des cieulx, regente terrienne
Emperiere des infernaux paluz,
Recevez moy, vostre humble chrestienne,
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleuz,
Ce non obstant qu’oncques rien ne valuz.
Les biens de vous, ma Dame, ma Maistresse
Sont trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse,
Sans lesquels biens ame ne peut merir
N’avoir les cieulx. Je n’en suis jengleresse.
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

François Villon

Anywhere else

I’ve reached the point in the semester when I want to be somewhere that is Else. In the south of France, there are fresh strawberries. In London, there are flowering quinces. In Portugal, gardens are being planted.  On sabbaticalhomes.com, there are houses and apartments for rent in my home city that have me in a strange state of envy, nostalgia, and something else I can’t quite pinpoint (there’s probably a German word for it). They evoke a life I never had, yet which seems like something familiar and lost, or something I meant to have and didn’t quite achieve: the views, the gardens, the accoutrements of sophisticated living, such as the glorious antique rugs in some of the houses (not compatible with cats: my rugs are decent though machine-made, but have survived various types of feline assault).

If spring would get a move on around here, I might be less restless. Is anyone else desperate for pastures new (or old)? Or are you too busy to care?

Moving on

Long ago and far away, when I was an unhappy teenager, I belonged to a church youth group. It was a kinder, gentler place than school, probably in part because its members ranged from nearly-13 all the way to 18, and the older members were used to dealing with younger siblings but not concerned with whatever the ninth graders thought was the One Right Way. I think the group knew before I did that I would one day be an English professor. It was nice, because they didn’t mind that I was such an egghead; it was a characteristic like hair color or liking certain kinds of music. We had a grown-up leader, a fun and loving woman around whom everything coalesced. After she re-married and moved away, the church just could not find anyone who could take her place, and we disbanded.

Over the years, the original group has had several reunions. Occasionally, we managed to go camping for a weekend, as we had done on occasion during our salad days (woooot, away from parents for the weekend! Or, no, not woot; what would we have said then? “Neat”? “Excellent”? “Sweet”? I can’t even remember, that’s how old I am). Sometimes we just got together for an afternoon in a park that was local to more of us than not, or went to dinner. In recent years, our leader’s daughter has hosted birthday parties for her mom, who now lives in an in-law apartment with this daughter, and some selection of the group has managed to turn up for a few of those get-togethers.

I attended one last summer. Along with current friends, relatives, and neighbors, a couple of sisters from the youth group were there. Our leader, now in her early 80s, at first mistook me for her college roommate, before sorting out who I really was. She apologized for something that happened when I was 20, something I had forgotten about; I was in a bad place at the time but it had been decades since I’d thought of that misunderstanding. The sisters were pretty much as I remembered them: one cheerful, matter-of-fact, domestic; the other sophisticated, charming, faintly catty. At first I was delighted to see all three women again. But they don’t know me now, and that made it strange.

Back at home, in my adult life, Sir John and I went out with another couple: he’s a mathematician, she’s a social worker and a Damned Extrovert who asked probing questions about my recent trip and how I felt about it, not accepting my polite demurrals and attempts to change the subject (she’s really very nice, just totally E and F to my I and T, and her husband is one of Sir John’s best friends, so I always try not to be rude as I would be to more random people who probed like that). So I finally blurted out what I really thought: “I realized that I do not have to maintain ties to the past or people I used to know. I am allowed to be who I am now, and not keep up with people who remind me of things I don’t want to remember.”

Today I got e-mail floating the idea of another reunion, at a time that I could make if I really wanted to, although teaching provides an excellent excuse for not going. I used it. If the rest of the group gets together, I hope they have a lovely time. I wish them well. They’re nice people. They were once really important to me. But I hate remembering how unhappy and trapped I felt through most of my teenage years, and they remind of me that time, because I’ve hardly seen them since.

It’s a bit odd: I am completely unconflicted about putting distance between myself and my family, to the extent that is possible. I have kept up with various old friends from different parts of my life, including school and college friends from those teenage years. The youth group, having been an important escape from home and school, somehow is more associated with misery than the friends who went to school with me and knew my family. Who knows, maybe the group remembers more about my family than I think; that still doesn’t mean that I want to know what that might be. It would be nice to want to see them, but I don’t.

I like my grown-up self. I like being Sir John’s wife, and being Professor [Real Name], and being Dame Eleanor Hull. My old self is dead.

Been down one time, been down two times.

Never going back again.

More brilliance from the past

In my remembrance of things past via visits to defunct (or merely suspended? like the Seven Sleepers, perhaps the right impetus will awaken some bloggers) blogs, I have been relieved when some writers actually quote large chunks of text from other webpages, rather than just linking. Links, sadly, break. Thus, having found a clear exposition of Z’s amazing and admirable process in comments at Undine’s, I’m copying and pasting here. I’m not this hardcore, but I agree about the need to think, and that writing before you have thought is “just stewing.” That is, sometimes I write to help myself think, but I have to be very clear that that is what I am doing, and not have any expectation that any of those words will be good, keeper words.

The rest of this post is Z, not me:

*

People say just write, write, write and this will make you see what you are doing. Through the so called process of writing you will figure out what you mean, they allege. I think that is completely crazy, at least for my case … writing is just stewing and will only ruin your thought process unless you have already decided what you are doing. Until such time as your first line comes to you unannounced, and you know what the content of your last paragraph is going to be, you are much better off just meditating as far as I am concerned.

If I do that, all I come up with are a whole lot of great first pages. I could do that for months and even years – and HAVE done it for that long sometimes – and never finish a single piece.

*

My most classic example of this, to which I have alluded before:

When I was in college and graduate school I had a typewriter, not a computer. (In college and through my Ph.D. exam it was a manual one; for my dissertation I bought a self-correcting one by Olympia.) For all papers I kept handwritten notes and would then write directly on the typewriter, no revisions. My dissertation director couldn’t believe my dissertation draft, she said it read like a book, how could this be, but she would have just DIED had she known I had composed it directly like that. She had been yelling at me because I had said I was only writing one page a day, with Sundays off, and would write the whole thing that way in a year. She nearly fainted when this turned out to be true.

Of course in order to be able to do that I had to sit around and think about it for several months first. It took seven months to come up with a dissertation prospectus. Then it took ten months to think. Then it took nine months to write, and four months to have the committee read it and then for me to enter it into my very first computer and print it out on acid free paper. This adds up to 30 months during which I also moved to a new country and took a full load of graduate courses in a new subfield, in a language I was not (initially) very proficient in.]

*

This methodology is the only one which works for me, and/but I warn everyone that even it only works if one is actually working on one’s ideas (not stewing, not rushing, not worrying, but WORKING) in a calm, organized, but *concentrated* way in the meantime. That is what will, in good time, make a first line come into one’s head … and one knows it is the RIGHT first line because with it comes the content of the last paragraph.

Peri-writing

I’ve lamented nostalgically about the Lost Age of Blogging before, and mentioned that I spend a certain amount of time trawling archives of both defunct and on-going blogs. Hey, I spend most of my professional life living in the far-distant past, somewhere between the twelfth and the fifteenth century; spending my leisure 10-15 years back puts me in the current century!

Peri-writing is a great term from the incomparable Undine. I disagree strenuously with the commenter who said it is the enemy of writing. No. It is research. It is the humanities equivalent of running experiments, of putting in lab time, seeing what you come up with. Writing is the writing up of results, and if you do that first, you’re in danger of cherry-picking your evidence and reporting false results. Writing just to write, even just to see where your “holes” are, is a great way to waste time and dig yourself into a huge pile of words you’ll just have to trash. Much better to make notes, look up things you should read, and then at some later point think about those things: can you get by with reading reviews of books, or chapters, or skimming the TOC and index plus some key passages? Are you better off reading the popular overview and then judiciously extracting the original research from the cited works? I agree that the peri-writing stage can be frustrating, but it is necessary, it is work, and we should not be sending the message that there’s some way to skip it. Thinking is the important part, and there’s really no way (that I know of) to shorten that process.

The red basket

Stuff. Things. Memories. Do you keep them, why do you keep them, do you really want them or do you have a sense of obligation (= guilt) about them? Would you rather just move on and be who you are now, and forget about the path that brought you here? Do you hang onto things, or to people, for the sake of children or other people down the generational line? Or is that another reason to get rid of things and cut ties?

My mother died ten years ago. My father is in assisted living. My brothers have been clearing out my parents’ last house (not somewhere any of us ever lived). Since my parents themselves cleared out the house we grew up in (and what a job that was), and then there were two more houses, one of which burned down after they moved out but while there was still stuff in storage there, much of the Stuff in my dad’s house is things he dragged home in the last 15 years or so. It doesn’t have feelings attached. And we have all taken a lot of things we wanted already.

Nonetheless, Stuff kept turning up when we all went to the house together. Things we thought had already gone to someone: here is that set of dishes (or at least part of the set). Anyone want them? These wine glasses are worth actual money; should we try to sell them on e-Bay or just let garage-salers feel they’ve made a massive score? Here’s That Thing! Reminisce about the Thing. Do a few minutes of reminiscence suffice, or does someone want the Thing?

Since I live far away and am here only briefly, I’m shipping some Things to myself. I may yet de-accession them once I return to my Actual Real Life. But while I’m here, I can’t really tell whether I really want the Things, or just want to have seen them again.

It’s strange how many different stories there are about things. One brother assured me that a crocheted object was something our mother made for me as a baby. I told him I made it for her, a Christmas present that I worked on when I lived in Paris. I wonder how many other legends like that run through families, where people forget the origins of the pickle dish.

One of the things I think I want is a basket. A large oblong basket painted red. So many times I have looked for it when I needed something in which to take a cake or a casserole to a party, and then realized that it was never in my house, it was my mother’s basket. I don’t know why I never bought myself my own basket. Now I’m going to have the original one that I keep looking for. I hope that will be satisfying. I do wonder if I should just pitch the red basket, here, and get myself a new one at home. But this is what I mean: it’s hard to know, here, what matters, and why it matters.