Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

Title page, The Life of Poetry (1949; 1968 repr)

I meant to write more, to write up my experience of the women's march, to write about what I'm doing to connect, resist, and defend this outrageously nasty new Republican administration (more than nothing; not enough; maybe enough), but then those who are doing more shamed me into silence. For a moment.

In any case, let's get back into it with a little Muriel Rukeyser. Beautiful, astonishing, bracing words, as valuable now as they must have been in 1949. These, the opening paragraphs of her nonfiction collection of talks and essays, The Life of Poetry. Its incantatory and strange. Read it. Read it again. And again:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are luck, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.--Muriel Rukeyser

2016 in pictures

There has been a lot of talk about how awful 2016 was. Certainly, we lost some amazing musicians and celebrities. But are we—am I—letting my ongoing grief, anger, and shock at the election color my sense of an entire year of my life? I decided to check in with myself.

For years, we have made calendars. Every month contains a photo or two from the children’s lives that month in the year prior. As I went through 2016’s photos, I saw other pictures, not including my family (though all about them), that reminded me of some of the good in the past year.

In 2016 I got to go to Austin, Texas and Doha, Qatar for the first time. I got to go home to Seattle for a long visit. I got back to L.A. and fell in love with California again. I joined the flower committee and in church and learned a little bit about arranging flowers. My uncle-by-marriage built raised beds for us and we grew abundant and gorgeous vegetables at our place on the St. Lawrence River. I drew a lot and got a lot better at drawing. I cooked and shared food—fancy and plain—with people I love.

As I think about my resolutions for 2017 (more words, less weight, as ever, but how to write that so it sticks—so the words stick and the pounds melt?), I see that I have to add travel to the list. Even just going to a neighboring village has the power to bring me joy. Kayaking is a big summer pleasure, but one of our best summer days of kayaking came when we drove upriver forty minutes and kayaked in a less familiar spot. Why, even a rotten day of jury duty in Newark was brightened by the sight of one of the gorgeous Victorian brickfronts in that tumbledown city.

In any case, following the “no babies, no pets” rule, here are a dozen of my favorite images and memories from the year just past.

Read in 2016

(2016=29; 2015=30; 2014=33)

This is the third year I’ve kept track of my reading for the year and it’s the third year coming in right around 30 books. I think it would be great to read 52 in 2017. Let’s see if that can happen. What do I notice? This was a year of reading white women, for sure. Only 5 men and only 2 people of color in the whole list. That’s not great range, though since this accounting began in part out of the #readonlywomen movement of 2014, the preponderance of women in itself is neither surprising nor entirely bad.

Other observations: eight audiobooks (audiobook listening dwindling sharply between the conventions and that horrifying election and then rose again), only three books on the Kindle. A play. More experimental writing than in past years (11, 16, 23, & 25), so that’s good. And, with Mina Loy’s collection, even a bit of poetry. Also: some genre fiction this year in the form of three thrillers. Lee Child came to Fordham to honor alum Mary Higgins Clark and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I loved them and they certainly are a great way to finish a book quickly when just getting a complete narrative into your head feels like what needs to happen next. 

My least favorite books of the year were the Brittain biography (ponderous and too impatient to get to her pacifist work to see the rest of her life as interesting or worth documenting) and Eileen Myles (I know she’s a darling, but I found this memoirish novel almost unbearably self-indulgent. It’s really really hard for me to read about being drunk and on fellowship, dealing drugs and cheating on girlfriends who cheat on you.) I just felt the weight of all the time she was wasting. I kept reading—at a snail’s pace—because every few pages there would be a sentence that was absolutely dazzling and because I am a stubborn cuss.

My favorite book, by far, was H is for Hawk. Although I think about that handsome lug of a husband from Fates and Furies from time to time with a sigh.

1.     To Bed With Grand Music, Marghanita Laski (fiction)

2.    Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (fiction, audiobook)

3.    The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu (fiction)

4.    Plum Bun, Jessie Fauset (fiction)

5.     Unspeakable, Meghan Daum (nonfiction)

6.    Negroland, Margo Jefferson (nonfiction)

7.     Give and Take, Adam Grant (nonfiction, audiobook)

8.    Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel (fiction, Kindle)

9.    Richard III, William Shakespeare (drama, audiobook)

10.  Bossypants, Tina Fey (nonfiction, Kindle)

11.   The Argonuats, Maggie Nelson (nonfiction)

12.  H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (nonfiction, audiobook)

13.  Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (fiction)

14.  Bloomsbury Pie, Regina Marler (nonfiction)

15.  Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin (nonfiction, audiobook)

16.  Artful, Ali Smith (nonfiction)

17.  The Torso, Helene Thursen (fiction)

18.  Vera Brittain: A Life, Mark Bostridge (nonfiction)

19.  Killing Floor, Lee Child (fiction)

20. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner (fiction)

21.  A House Full of Daughters, Juliet Nicolson (memoir)

22. The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Mina Loy (poetry)

23. Where are the Children, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

24. Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles (fiction)

25. Pretend You Don’t See Her, Mary Higgins Clark (fiction)

26. Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton (memoir, audiobook)

27. This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust (nonfiction, audiobook)

28. Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (nonfiction, Kindle)

29. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance (nonfiction, audiobook)


Most important of all, we need to stay and keep connected. For my research, I’ve been reading Mark Granovetter’s work from the 1970’s on weak ties. He looked at working class Boston neighborhoods where unemployment was high. In one neighborhood, people did much better finding jobs than in another. In one neighborhood, people were successful in fighting the city’s plans to run a highway through the streets. What was the source of these successes? These neighborhoods were full of people who had ties to others outside the neighborhood. Granovetter found what we’re finding now in our social networks: if everyone you know agrees with you, if everyone in your circle shares your ideas, then your ideas don’t spread. But if you belong to a book group whose members differ from the people in your church which has a slightly different composition than your school board, you have the opportunity to spread an idea, to learn how to protest to local government when its acting against your interests, to pass your resume on to a manager who’s hiring folks in your area. Those groups that cross borders are weak ties and, in one of the most powerful and counterintuitive insights, Granovetter shows that only weak ties can be bridges.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about having a beer with a rancher when she was in rural Nevada on an environmental protest and finding lots of common ground. And I am still interested in and attracted to projects like Howard Schultz’s conversation starters or Matthew Dowd’s Listen To Us. Although I’m not loving Arlie Hochschild’s book, her project of going to rural Louisiana and getting to know people there, learning how they understood the role of big oil in their lives, is a good and brave effort to build bridges, not just for Hochschild, but, through her book, for may of us.

Keep those bridges. Build bridges. Instead of announcing “everyone who disagrees with me can go home,” why not remind people to be civil and strive to keep the links, even to those with whom you disagree?

Only connect.

This--defend, resist, connect--is my slogan, my aim and my hope for the coming year. What do you think?




Even as we defend our ideals, we will need to resist the designs and policies of the incoming administration. We must resist any political threats to the environment, to journalism, and to our most vulnerable fellow-citizens.

This year, for the first time, our family set up recurring (small) monthly donations to charities. We have always made annual gifts and occasional one-time gifts, but these sustaining donations save charities some money on fundraising and help stabilize their budgeting. I’ve been a sustaining member of WNYC for years. To that, we decided to support the environment (through which is smaller, more urgent, and as highly rated as the also excellent Sierra Club), civil rights (through the ACLU) and women’s rights (through Planned Parenthood). Those three issues rose to the top for our family; others will matter more to you, but it does feel good to give and to help.

Reading continues to be an act of resistance, too. Partly by supporting independent investigative journalism—we have recently subscribed to Slate Plus, the Washington Post and the Economist, all of which have been doing great good work to untangle and uncover questions about the upcoming administration.

More than that, we have to turn to books. The books that amuse and inspirit us as well as those that inform and warn us about the perils ahead. (I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on my Kindle, listening to George Packer’s The Unwinding, and reading a paper copy of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. As soon as I finish one of these, I’ll let myself read Marcy Dermansky’s new book, The Red Car!) I’m collecting a list of those books at the Syllabus for Hard Times and I invite you, again, to visit there and add your own ideas. Do I have to finally read The Fountainhead? Please don’t make me.


I’m not a political commentator and many people far smarter and more qualified than I have written about why the president-elect’s actions—and omissions—are alarming. We might note, for starters, that, despite losing the popular vote, the president-elect had held victory rallies; he has not reached out to the majority of American voters who did not vote for him. We might note the admiration he has expressed for dictators and oligarchs, most especially Vladimir Putin. We might note, too, the lack of a plan for avoiding conflicts of interest between the Trump brand and the United States government once the president takes office.

Smaller things keep me awake at night. I worry about the White House. I worry about how Trump’s gaudy taste will endanger the Presidential residence. Nasty, undiplomatic tweets upset me, more than I would have expected. I see, in my grief at what is unfolding as we prepare for the new administration, what a fervent patriot I am. For all of the many imperfections of this country, I really love it and love being an American. So, when the president-elect becomes President and takes the oath of office

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

--I am going to do what I can to see that he is true to that oath and to work to hold him to the value of that oath. One effect of this election is how it teaches us how fervently this country represents something we want to defend.


I’m trying this on as my slogan for the coming year. Those of us disappointed with—heartbroken by—the outcome of the election and bracing ourselves for the coming Trumpocalypse have been advising ourselves on what to do, how best to fight, how best to survive. Tim Snyder’s facebook post on 20 things we can learn from the rise of fascism in the 1930’s affected me deeply. I copied the items out and I want to write about them more in the coming weeks. Perhaps—I am torn about this one—I will even make one of those crazy text-heavy art-pieces that show up on Pinterest all the time—to help remind everyone in the family of Snyder’s principles. So, instead of forty words for coffee or “Love you to the Moon and Back!” our family can have Snyder’s principles for fighting fascism as its mantra. I’ll let you know.

I continue to read and think, but the advice we have been giving each other seems to fall into three categories: things we need to do to defend the principles of democracy and the standards of human decency, to resist those actions that harm our environment and our fellow citizens, and to connect to each other, both within and across political alliances.

In the coming days, I’ll explain a little more what I mean about each. 

The Syllabus for Hard Times

My grief at the outcome of the election is profound and it continues. It’s the atmosphere in which I live. It affects my sense of what is possible. It limits my horizons of hope. I can read all the Rebecca Solnit in the world, but the truth is I’m sad.

At the same time, I have work to do and I know that it is never more important to teach than in times when hope feels hard to grasp. So, every day I try to still be the best teacher I can be. And, of course, my students are doing the same and together, even in our sadness and uncertainty, we continue to arrive at great and good and exciting places of discovery and wisdom.

As propaganda surrounds us, how can teachers—college professors, especially (since that’s where my expertise lies)—work to help students distinguish truth from spin? As we prepare for the administration of a President who has courted the support of racists, hate groups, and neo-Nazis, a President who has admitted sexual assault and has openly mocked the disabled, a Gold Star family, Mexicans, and too many other groups to count, what is the right kind of respect—if that’s a word that has any meaning any more—to accord the office of the presidency? How bet to we continue to value the presidency as part of our democracy as we fight the policies—and outright lies—of the incoming President himself?

I am asking myself these questions every day. Following and learning from activists such as Rebecca Solnit, Shaun King and his #Injustice Boycott, Mikki Halpin, and her action now newsletter, and others.

My tiny contribution to this is a massive, open google drive folder which I’m calling the Syllabus for Hard Times. I value reading long hard things, but I find doing so increasingly difficult. I am distracted. I like the quick hit of a game of solitaire, a podcast, a “like” on a cute post. I’m not proud of it and I am striving to go deeper, to learn more so that I can be worthy of the credo Virginia Woolf expressed in the 1930’s: “thinking is my fighting.” If thinking is my fighting, I have to feed my brain enough so that I can think.

I have learned a lot from the various syllabi that have been circulating lately around #Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, NODAPL, and other movements, and, as I’ve been teaching a lot of pedagogy seminars lately, to teachers both new and experienced, I started the drive with a long bibliography of what I've been using to discuss teaching with teachers and then I and others have been adding from there. 

You can find the whole folder here. You can fill out the survey on how—if at all—your teaching will change here. Please take a look, add your own ideas and contributions, and pass it on.

Almighty Mother

Recently, a church elective began with a group of adults brainstorming God-terms. What are the words we use when referring to that being whom we call God? In this group of moderately liberal, Protestant adults who were not in yoga class, the list went about as you’d expect: God, the Almighty, Heavenly Father, Holy Father. Then someone (not me) thinks to suggest Loving Mother and something in me clicked.

For all my feminism, I still imagine God as Michelangelo painted Him and, unfortunately, Jesus often appears in my imagination is a slightly irritating, mansplaining sociologist. It’s getting in the way of my efforts to be a better person.

The exercise was to meditate by doodling around our favorite term for God. Write down your god term in the middle of a little shape and doodle around it for four minutes as a kind of prayer.

I wrote “Almighty Mother” and that felt mildly transgressive in a silly way (like someone in the 70’s might have been impressed by my bravery, like maybe my personal faith should join the 21st century) but then as I drew my shapes and dots and lines, I felt better. What if the Divine had the love and power of an almighty mother? How truly awesome would that be? I could feel protected and defended, inspirited and supported. That might help me do my work in this moment when my work feels harder and more important than ever. I might feel better about myself, my power, and our ability to band together and work to make the world we want to live within.

In the days since this harrowing, terrifying, world-shifting election, I’ve been grieving and worrying and praying to the Almighty Mother, asking for protection and fortitude in the coming struggles. 

Read in 2015

1.    My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (fiction)

2.   Citizen, Claudia Rankine (poetry)

3.   A Woman in Berlin, Anonymous (memoir)

4.   Eat Bacon, Don’t Jog Grant Petersen (self-help)

5.    The Care and Management of Lies, Jacqueline Winspear (fiction)

6.   The Book of Salt, Monique Truong (fiction)

7.   The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka (fiction)

8.   All We Know, Lisa Cohen (nonfiction)

9.   The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion (fiction)

10.                  Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury (nonfiction)

11.Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie (fiction, audiobook)

12.                  Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, Viviane Forrester (nonfiction)

13.                  Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell (nonfiction)

14.                  Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick (nonfiction)

15.The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway (nonfiction)

16.                  A London Address: The Artangel Essays, various (nonfiction)

17.                  Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe (nonfiction)

18.                  Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill (fiction)

19.                  The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (fiction)

20.                 The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer (nonfiction)

21.                  Some of My Lives, Rosamond Bernier (nonfiction)

22.                  I, Claudius, Robert Graves (fiction, audiobook)

23.                 God Save the Child, Toni Morrison (fiction)

24.                 The World is Round, Gertrude Stein (fiction)

25.                  NW, Zadie Smith (fiction)

26.                 A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen (drama)

27.                 Shapeshifters, Aimee Cox (nonfiction)

28.                 Claudius the God, Robert Graves (fiction, audiobook)


Abandoned in 2015

1.    Then Again, Diane Keaton (memoir) so boring, so familiar, so shallow, made me like her les

More Alice Munro than Rosamond Bernier

Delightful as the Bernier was, it’s an unrealistic lesson in being a person upon whom nothing is lost. If you’re on your way to see Picasso and Joan Miró invites you over, you would be churlish to doze or miss your sense that something was happening. And sometimes, my New York life does seem to approach the glamour of Bernier’s. But sometimes, reading Bernier, it’s hard not to feel a bit frumpy.

Up here on the St. Lawrence River where I spend my July, I’m not likely to run into a Picasso or a Miró. Instead, I try to pay Henry James levels of attention to the characters of this Northern New York landscape.  We are, after all, just across the River from Ontario and it feels like Munro country up here, with teens zooming around on Gators, overly tanned boaters sitting on barstools, overweight mothers sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs in front yards that don’t look onto the water.

Chaumont Barrents from

Last weekend, after my husband headed back down to the city for work, my daughters, my mother-in-law and I headed to the Chaumont Barrens, a Nature Conservancy spot. It was glorious and strange, just a 1.75 mile flat loop through a rare alvar grassland—thin soil, prairie plants (some rare, though I don’t know plants well enough to tell this; all rare in upstate New York). Many of the trees had exposed roots. Some of the forested areas were lush with brilliant, thin, chartreuse grass on the floor. We found some fossils.

Being Sunday, the Amish farmstand my mother-in-law sometimes goes to was closed, but near it was another. I could see zinnia and sunflowers as we whizzed past, so I determined to stop on the way home. Not only flowers, but Amish-made soap, jams, baskets, eggs, summer squash, and other treats. There was some pretty blowsy dill in a jar with a sign: “come to the house if you want us to cut you fresh dill.” And another sign saying everything at the stand was grown at the farm or by local Amish craftspeople. We were choosing flowers when the farmer came up, a plump man in jeans, a work shirt, and a worn baseball cap. “There’ll be a lot more coming. We had our first glads this morning, but they were gone right away. There’ll be more. And peppers. Hot peppers.”

“Corn?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, I should have corn, but the raccoons thought it was ready before I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if they’d eat a whole ear. But they take a bite of one, then eat one side of another. I don’t hunt and we don’t have a dog. What can I do?" He paused.  "I can’t kill anything.”

I murmured my assent, amazed and so touched, in this land of hunters and signs saying “Quickest way to Heaven: Trespassing on my Property,” to find such a kind soul.

When he said, “I can’t kill anything,” he meant it. Supremely. He said it was important to grow enough for everyone, but that this was the first year he’d ever had trouble with raccoons. He wondered aloud what to do next. I thought about the obese raccoon who used to waddle around my college campus, gorging on pizza he found in the dumpster, but I worried that if I talked about college, I’d make a wedge between us rather than a connection.

We took our sunflowers, our zinnias. He wished us well and we were on our way.

Rosamond Bernier!!

I won’t have the order of this quite right, but I know that I have Rosamond Bernier’s not-to-be-missed memoir on my shelves because Emma Straub, Lauren Cerand, and my father were all raving about it.

But then, in another mood, I hesitated to read a book about a fabulously wealthy woman—it seemed trivial, out of key with my own struggles and with the work I was trying to do.

Of course, moods change, and this summer with no Dalloway deadlines, I thought I might dip into something light. (As you can see, from what’s been appearing here, it’s been fairly light fare all month.)

Born to a wealthy family (her mother was English and died when Bernier was quite young, her father, an American Jew), Bernier grew up in and around the Philadelphia Orchestra. She dropped out of college to marry Lewis Riley, Jr. She lived with him in Mexico City where she became acquainted with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry. Her musicianship and acquaintance with composers, conductors, and artists, set her on her amazing life path, from features editor for American Vogue to founding editor of L’OEIL to esteemed lecturer on fine arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bernier writes affectionately of her brief first marriage and with tremendous, joyous wonder of her happy, third marriage to the art critic John Russell. The second husband is only mentioned as the source of complications. It’s a kind of social death for him through very controlled, polite restraint. Curious and sad, but not to be dwelt on when there is so much joy and genius all around her and she is so generous and funny about it.

Bernier is clearly the kind of woman to whom amazing, exciting things happen. The striking cover photo of her in a lovely satin slip, lounging in a four-poster bed came about one night when she couldn’t find any lodging in rural France one night in 1947—nothing, until the man she had come to interview offered her the chance to spend the night in Madame de Sevigné’s bed.

The book is beautifully written and full of amazing anecdotes—stories of what Picasso said to her, what Lenny Bernstein did for her, what she made of Jane and Paul Bowles, how Frida Kahlo probably liked her because she had a pet monkey.

The anecdotes of the famous are great and, when you read it, you’ll have your own favorites, but I keep thinking about a simpler and perhaps even more amzing story: her first husband had a small airplane (it’s nice to be rich) and taught her to fly. She writes that she has a terrible sense of direction, but flying in Acapulco was easy: she would just take off and fly along the coast until she found a beach that she liked the look of and land there for a day of swimming and bathing.

That world is gone, and perhaps that’s to the good. But I suspect the spirit of the young woman who seized that chance to explore is what made her such a trusted confidante of so many of the great artists of the past century.

A delight.

Not really a review of Spinster

Among English professors these days, there is a debate about world literature. What is the best way to teach literature from countries and cultures other than our own? How can we introduce students to different cultures without imposing our own values on them? This is a complex question, but I think it’s safe to say that Kate Bolick’s book offers a kind of limit case on moving too far in the direction of writing what you know.

If there are dangers in spreading your expertise too thin, in pretending to be able to teach a Mongolian short story, a Kenyan poem, a Uruguayan essay, surely the greater danger lies in thinking that red-headed women from New England who move to New York City to become writers is a meaningful category.

Still, with expectations low, I devoured Spinster. My mom did, too. And, judging by the publicity it received, we are not alone. Nor are we alone in finding that the book has left a bit of a sour taste, that its narrowness suggests a profound failure of imagination. The articles in Slate and the LA Review of Books offer a more thorough take-down of the book than I have the patience to compose. I wanted instead to write about the value that the book might continue to have, in spite of its flaws. So, I went flipping back through the pages I marked in the book, to see what there might be that’s worth sharing.

So disappointing to find nothing. 

Desperate Characters

A few years ago, I did a favor for a friend and, in thanks, he sent me a copy of Paula Fox’s 1970 novel Desperate Characters. Seeing him again in June prompted me to read the book. It’s an amazing small novel about a prosperous, cultured, and childless couple in Brooklyn. The husband is fighting with his law partner; the wife feeds a stray cat. They say things that are not as kind as they probably should be. But the stray cat scratches her, the scratch gets infected, she ignores it and goes off to a dinner party anyway. Even though that’s about it, it manages to be a sinister novel, full of rage and smart observations about gentrification, marriage, and aging.

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in novels about writers living in Brooklyn.

The pleasure of it comes from the precision of the writing. Let me give you a flavor, from some of the passages that struck me.

I liked this one: a wife’s reaction to her husband’s refusal to throw away some very worn underwear: “He sounded rather plaintive. She felt kinder toward him. There was something funny about people’s private little preferences and indulgences, something secretive and childlike and silly. She laughed at him and his soft old underwear.”

Or this description of a party-goer’s pretentious stoner son: “At the very hint of an idea from me, he smiles at me gently as though I were eternally damned.” 

Thanks, Drew!

The Road from Coorain & the Good-natured All-rounder

There was a time, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, before Mel Gibson went crazy, when Mel Gibson was wonderful, when Australia was very much at the center of the popular imagination. Gallipoli, Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock fired our (or my) imaginations.

My copy of The Road from Coorain comes from that time, and its cover boasts “In the tradition of My Brilliant Career…” but I never read it until now. I might not have read it at all, but my father picked it up and sent me a quotation from it, which reminded me that it had been on my bookshelf all along.

I’m thinking a lot—more, even than usual—about women’s lives, women’s educations, and how ordinary women grow into extraordinary ones, the kind of women who embolden themselves to change the world. Jill Ker Conway, a historian and former president of Smith College is such a woman.

Jill Ker Conway’s memoir of growing up on a sheep farm in rural Australia, her efforts to get out, and her gradual realization that education could become a way for her to leave home, leave her grieving widowed mother behind without forcing a rupture of her bond or her daughterly duty. That interests me so profoundly. The mother’s demand almost derailed Vera Brittain: she did return home from nursing near the trenches when her mother had a breakdown during the War. The mother’s demand threatens to derail Conway, too. And I’m interested in these women, conventional but ambitious woman, who worry over hurting feelings and try to figure out how to achieve without causing a rupture:

“Some of the inner tension went out of me because I saw a solution to the dilemma I could discuss with no one. If I were to become a success academically and chose a career which would take me away from Sydney, it would finesse the whole question of leaving home” (168)

Divas and revolutionaries are amazing, but what fuels my imagination more, these days, are meditations like this one, on the problem of women’s leadership:

“We were an elite. Ergo we were born to be leaders. However, the precise nature of the leadership was by no means clear. For some of our mentors, excelling meant a fashionable marriage and leadership in philanthropy. For others, it meant intellectual achievement and the aspiration to a university education. Since the great majority of the parents supporting the school favored the first definition, the question of the social values which should inform leadership was carefully glossed over. Eminence in the school’s hierarchy could come form being a lively and cheerful volunteer, a leader in athletics, or from intellectual achievement. The head girl was always carefully chosen to offend no particular camp aligned behind competing definitions. She was always a good-natured all-rounder.” (102)

The good-natured all-rounder. What a fantastic phrase. It calls to mind all those amazing athletic, pretty, kind, smart girls of advertising: Gibson girls, Ivory girls, Breck girls. What pressure we put on ourselves to be that impossible girl.

Then, this observation about an early, wonderful boyfriend interested me: “In his company I enjoyed the experience an intellectual woman needs most if she has lived in a world set on undermining female intelligence: I was loved for what I was rather than the lesser mind I pretended to be” (179). This observation, about what women want, reminded me of a less wholesome version of the same thing, from Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements, on John Middleton Murry: "He also managed to be both coldly self-involved and extremely needy, which proved to be an irresistible combination to women with strong personalities who did not want to be entirely in control” (93).

And finally, I leave you with this Didion-esque observation about the misery of women living in bohemia:

“The women, having rejected bourgeois fashion, often seemed rather drab. They talked intensely about ideas, but their eyes were watchful because it required close attention to sort out the shifting amatory relationships of the group. When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was to explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others” (221)

I love how, unlike Didion, who experiences the communes of the sixties with misery, Conway just feels impatient and irritated.

It’s not too late. This memoir, beloved in the late-1980’s, is still terrific.

God Help the Child

Toni Morrison’s latest book is so short, so good, that I found myself reading slowly, only allowing myself a few pages at night, so that it would last a little longer. She knows how to write the fables that we need and, still in the book’s spell, I found myself thinking about Sandra Bland, her too-short life, her unjust death.

A friend asked what could justice look like for Sandra Bland’s mother. I don’t know. I remember my own pride when I was twenty-eight, my life ahead of me, my heart and mind full of hope and energy. No one wants to bury a child. I continue to struggle over the expressions of forgiveness articulated by the family members of those shot in Charleston. On the one hand, grace is a beautiful, amazing, even miraculous gift. And yet, forgiveness offered too early may not be forgiveness at all, but a sign of a spirit too beaten down to ask for what is right.

Every character in Morrison’s book has been touched by violence, often brutal sexual abuse of children. Each character bears the scars of that violence and the novel moves from person to person, as each must come to terms with how they bear those scars, how long to hold on to grief, and when to let it go. For me, Morrison’s novel offers a way to think through pain and violence, neither to deny its power to hurt to the marrow, nor to permit it to break the spirit. These are not easy questions, but they matter. 

I, Claudius

22 July 2015

 I recently became Faculty Senate President at my university. Were I a practical person, I might spend some of my summer reading Robert’s Rules of Order so that I can run senate meetings in good order. Instead, I decided on I, Claudius.

Robert Graves has been in the background for years. Watching I, Claudius with my parents is one of my favorite memories of growing up and it turned me into a lifelong Derek Jacobi fan. I was a young adolescent and my father started turning out the lights when there’d be an orgy scene to preserve us all from mortification. A few episodes in to the series, and we didn’t even bother to turn on the lights.

But I didn’t read him. I used The White Goddess extensively, but only dipping in here and there, when studying for my comprehensive exams. But I didn’t read Goodbye to All That as part of my modernist training or in my more recent World War I reading. I only read a few of his poems. But, last summer, I took a break from World War I and read Emma Straub’s beachy The Vacationers. Set in Majorca, where Graves lived much of his live, it has a Graves subplot. I started paying attention. Then, as I have been learning the ropes of the Senate, I thought that perhaps the tale of a middle-aged historian who successfully outwits the Roman Senate and some pretty mad emperors to become emperor himself might amuse me.

Boy did it!

I listened on my (very slow) runs, which turns out to be a lovely way to experience Graves. While some of the descriptions of battle tactics were of limited interest, they were mainly about battles with Germany and that, in itself was fascinating: to imagine Graves, a World War I veteran who’d been wounded at the Somme, studying Roman history and combing it for stories of German bravery, German military might, German failures of leadership. Some of the digs are a little silly—as when Claudius, who narrates the story in a wonderfully intimate, confiding, slightly fussy voice, pretends to explain what beer is to his imagined future Roman audience: the Germans love this fermented beverage made from grain which somewhat resembles wine. Others are more poignant. There is an extended meditation on what power the Germans might wield if they ever overcome their barbarity and become civilized that, if a bit heavy-handed, moved me.

I also enjoyed the reflections on power and strategy: what senators did to stay alive in spite of Tiberius’s increasing tyranny, Tiberius’s preference for Caligula because a tyrant who needs to be loved should pick a lesser man and a more evil one as his successor.


Best of all, to me, however, were Claudius’ reflections on the difference between scholarship and public life. As he’s impressed into the emperor-ship on the final page, he muses—and asks us to wonder what it is that he thinks of—Graves offers a great list: his great, murdered brother Germanicus, his family, the Republic which he would have preferred to restore? No. He thinks: well, now people will certainly read my histories. That did make me laugh.

Telling all this to a friend, he suggested that perhaps I should read The Godfather next. Perhaps I will.



A London Address: the Artangel Essays

I have been trying to take notes on some of the books I read last month, including this thin little collection of essays, A London Address from Granta.

It's really not worth saying much about, except that it's a document worth knowing: a dozen writers of diverse backgrounds and literary styles were invited to stay in a London apartment built to look like the ship in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and write an essay about London today, with an eye cast back to Contrad, too. The occasional pieces, by Teju Cole, Jeanette Winterson, Colm Toíbin and others are mostly very occasaional indeed, but I enjoyed reading them.

Website with more information is here

Mushrooms, or there are no coincidences

The other day, my mother-in-law asked me if I had any friends at yoga.

I don’t. But there are people there whom I see every summer when I go to my thrice-weekly yoga class in the Victorian pavilion overlooking the St. Lawrence River. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I leave our cottage at 7:20 and drive upriver and over the bridge to Wellesley Island to practice with a bunch of other summer people. There are my teacher’s parents, in their 80’s and fit. There is the lady, at least fifteen years my senior, who has an amazing handstand sequence. There are the young moms. The triathletes. There is the hippie woman who is an educator. And there is the mushroom lady. Or that’s what I think of her as.

When I started going to these yoga classes during our Julys at the River four years ago, I felt very very shy. But one morning I couldn’t help myself. There had been a sudden rain and a whole bunch of large—Portobello-sized—mushrooms had popped out overnight. It was wonderful. I turned to the woman next to me and told her what I’d seen. She grew enthusiastic: If I was interested in mushrooms, there was a talk at the library next week….

Abashed, I confessed that mine was no more than a passing interested, but since then, I’ve thought of her as the mushroom lady. I like her.

So, when my mother-in-law asked on a Monday if I’d seen my friends, I admitted that I recognized many and was happy to see the mushroom lady again.

On Wednesday, my older daughter came with me. The teacher made some announcements, including the one that Jean, she pointed to the mushroom lady, would be leading a mushroom foraging event at the State Park on Saturday. It turns out she is the President of the Central New York Mycological Society.

What are the chances that the one time in my life I mention wild mushrooms to someone it would be her?

And what are the chances that later that day, I would spot these beauties on my walk with Flynn, the wonder hound?

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

We are up on the St. Lawrence River this month, as we usually are in July. I brought The Summer Book with me again, an my copy here joins the one I left behind last year. Embarrassed by the duplication, I read it.

While I had a lot to say about my mixed feelings about Offill, I’m not sure how to explain the small delights of this wonderful book—or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the patience on this gorgeous July day to try. This novel in stories from 1972 by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books, is a little wonder and a great, unsentimental, gorgeous summer read. The New York Review of Books reprint includes her illustrations.

It tells the story of young Sophia, based, apparently, on Jansson’s niece of the same name, who spends her summer on an island off the Finnish coast with her elderly grandmother and her Papa. Papa is a minor character—mostly, he has his back to his mother and daughter, sitting hunched over the table, working. Sophia’s mother is dead and, as Kathryn Davis notes in her lovely introduction to this volume, that absence is about all the plot of the book.

Episodes cover the small events of an island summer: a storm, the arrival of a cat, a nouveau riche neighbor, a night in a tent, Papa’s sudden desire for a garden. Both grandmother and Sophia are moody. They irritate each other, cheat at cards, I particularly liked the one in which Grandmother constructs Venice of balsa wood. She sets it next to the water but a storm overnight destroys her models. Rather than upset the already fragile and tantrum-y child, she builds another model and then, to make it look as though it survived the storm, she tosses tea and the contents of her ashtray on the new model.

A deeply charming book. Highly recommended.