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Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

January 2020

Due to almost endless rain and wind, very little gardening and no graveling was accomplished in January. I read 45 books, and while several were short (three poetry books, for example), two were quite long (“Ishyvoo” and May Sarton).

Here are a few more of the books and some takeaways.

I was pleased to get the latest Seaside Knitters mystery, from which I saved some passages to enhance my blog post about the series. Unfortunately, due to procrastination, my saved passages from the previous two books in the series disappeared in my big computer (and computer back up) crash in December. I have been too busy reading to deal with my computer problem any further.

Jazmin was a good reading companion.

From Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Did you know that “Xena” was an eco warrior princess?

One memoir led to another in January. It all started with The Last Gift of Time, which led me to May Sarton and Maxine Kumin, and (although I cannot remember how) to an assortment of modern memoirs.

A theme in the modern ones seems to be some regret for ones behavior in one’s twenties. I have a bit of that, although age 31 through 36 were my most regrettable years.

I discovered Dani Shapiro and read all five of her memoirs (Slow Motion, Devotion, Still Writing, Hour Glass, Inheritance).

In Hourglass, I liked this passage about the sorting of inherited possessions.

She just hints at and never writes about in detail one thing I wish she would explain: “I could still feel the hug of the woman who was no longer my friend.” What happened?

In her mid life memoir, Devotion, she writes about crying a lot. And another memoirist, Claire Dederer, whose two books I read this month, also writes about herself and her women friends crying. I looked back at my forties and realized I had been so busy working and surviving that I barely had time for a mid life emotional crisis. If I fit one in, I don’t remember it well.

Like most writers, Dani enjoys solitude and describes the kind of non-peopling that I enjoy during staycation.

Dani Shapiro, Claire Dededer, and Christopher Isherwood all write extensively about yoga (the two women) and Hinduism (Isherwood). It felt oddly coincidental to find that theme repeated over and over. I had to wade through it to get to the other good stuff. Maybe the reason yoga does not appeal to me is that our local studio uses a Barbie doll as an avatar. (I kid you not.) Maybe it is because the one time I tried yoga, in my thirties, it reminded me horribly of being a failure in junior high gym class.

I loved, in Claire Dederer’s two memoirs, Love and Trouble and Poser, the Seattle settings–my home town–especially Poser’s first half, when she lived in my old neighborhood, Phinney Ridge.

She takes her daughter to the childcare coop at “the giant gray building that housed the Phinney Neighborhood Association” –and was my elementary school!

A block an half from my old house, Claire and her friends walk around “the flat weed choked lake that lay in the center of Northwest Seattle. Green Lake had no color at all; it was the most ill-named lake ever. But, just a little shy of three miles around, its paved path made a just-right walk.

That was my lake and my frequent path! Below, two of my photos from the early 70s…and me obsessively running the path in the mid 80s, before it became the tremendously crowded walking path that it is now.

Claire laments the loss of the old Fremont neighborhood…

I used to stop between jobs and eat humbow at that same long gone cafe.

She also writes about the wonderful Magus Books in the U District. Here, she has just gotten coffee at the Allegro around the corner. All former haunts of mine.

And the ferries….

…and the houseboats of Lake Union.

(In Love and Trouble, an entire chapter amusingly devotes itself to the old businesses –shops, coffee houses, restaurant, movie theaters–of the 1970s-90s University District.)

I appreciate that in her yoga journey, she addresses several times the possible cultural imperialism of it all (although she doesn’t use that modern and somewhat trendy term). She remembers how yoga figured in the Mapp and Lucia novels, to my delight.

I also read a harrowing memoir, Educated…

and if you leave out the survivalism and off-the-grid life, the scary junk yard, the fundamentalist religion and the home schooling, her father reminds me of mine. Unfortunately. Nearby, her extended family lived among “the constant gossip of a small town, whose opinions pushed in through the windows and under the doors.” A bit like certain aspects of my small town can be.

Warning: monsters ahead

Now… You can stop right here and wait for the next post, a nice one about compost, unless you want to read some sad memories brought on by the next memoir.

I was blindsided when The Rules Do Not Apply segued from a memoir of a relationship and a house to the story of a miscarriage that echoed mine. The author and I were about the same age (late thirties) and at the same stage of pregnancy. Like any story that makes one feel less alone in one’s memories, it was both agonizing and cathartic to read. Her experience was more terrifying than mine; she was alone in a distant country and a little bit further along so that the baby breathed ever so briefly. If this experience brings back a memory of your life, you may or may not want to read her essay about it, Thanksgiving in Mongolia.

A few sentences that spoke to me hard:

You’ll have another one.” ….”No, I want that one.” It was the savage truth. I had a longing–ferocious, primal, limitless, crazed–for the only person I had ever made …His soul.I had wanted to experience unconditional lovefor someone whom I alone had known in his whisper of a life.” (In my story, at least Robert was there, too. He had just gone looking for a miniature guitar to buy for his son the week before it happened.) “Logically, I knew the person I’d lost was not fully formed, that he was the possibility of a person. But without him I was gutted. If my baby could not somehow be returned to me, nothing would be right again.” She writes about something that I have seen mentioned in no other memoir, “one of nature’s less kind tricks” of lactating after a miscarriage. The worst and most physically painful stab in the heart. The doctor she sought out said that he felt desperately sorry for her that she would not know what her boy would have been like as a child.

She writes that eventually “the grief went back to sleep in my body.”

The best words of wisdom that she came to eventually were “everybody doesn’t get everything….as natural and unavoidable as mortality”. If my own son had lived and continued to live, he would be 28 this year. I have no idea how we would have survived financially. We had no back up. It is unlikely that my then spouse, Robert, could have kept our business going on his own, and even though my housecleaning clients loved me (I was their “jewel”, and all that sort of thing), I doubt if hauling a baby to our jobs would have worked out. We might all three have sunk into so much poverty that we lost our house, and I don’t think I would have ended up being a gardener by trade. Our son, Devon, might not have liked me as a mother; I doubt I would have been a good one. Don’t tell me otherwise.

Next: the great relief of some ordinary composting.

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Read on 4 December 2019

Long ago, I read and loved Carolyn Heilbrun’s Kate Fansler mystery series and her non-fiction book Writing a Woman’s Life. I had completely missed her memoir about aging until recently, when I learned of it and placed an interlibrary loan.

Here are a multitude of take-aways from what is, so far, my favourite book of my 2019 reading year.

In Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, I was struck by no mention of some of my favourite memoirists, including May Sarton and Doris Grumbach. I was so pleased to see Doris mentioned early on in Last Gift.

And then May Sarton herself appeared at the end of this paragraph about Grumbach.

I knew I was in for a heavenly read.

The subject matter of life over 60 is significant to me because I will soon turn 65.

Heilbrun quotes from a poem by Marilyn Hacker, called Against Elegies.

Soon came the story about one of my favorite things in a memoir, buying a house, coupled with another favorite thing, the joy of solitude.

…..

The idea that something can be happening for the last time is even more poignant to me as I reread this next takeaway a week after an old friend, who wanted to live to be 100, died with no warning, in his sleep, at age just barely 67.

Part of a chapter is devoted to the joys of email (in 1996) and to Heilbrun’s extensive correspondence through that medium. I wonder what she would have thought of the social internet?

Next, I found a whole chapter about May Sarton. What bliss. I once read a disappointing and cruel biography about Sarton which criticized and excoriated her difficult personality. In contrast, her friend Carolyn wrote of her with sympathetic and understanding honesty.

……..

A friend who knew May Sarton and was smitten with her told me a story about being invited over and then being told to go away, because May was in the midst of a writing inspiration. I think it was in her memoirs that I learned the phrase “a person from Porlock”.

I still have these books but must have lent out my two favourites, Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of a Solitude.

I thought nothing could make me happier than a whole chapter about May Sarton, until turning the page brought me to a chapter about England.

…..

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And yet, and yet, something of that first fascination with writings by the English remained, like the aroma of a lost love, pure, fabricated, and enchanting.

…….

I had to look that up.

The chapter goes on with the joys of visiting the home of English friends. Every paragraph is perfection and way too big of a takeaway to share here. Just a glimpse or two:

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The chapter ends with this delightful quotation about friendship.

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On memoirs in general, with reference to a memoirist named Maxine Kumin, whom I have not read.

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More on aging:

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Below: I remember as a child taking drives out of Seattle with my parents and being in the countryside in twenty minutes, with pastures and cows and horses and barns.

And I know that nostalgia for the past is a privilege.

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On reading as an Anglophile:

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The passage below is just how I feel about death. Perhaps if Carolyn Heilbrun were still alive, I could contact her on her Facebook page and we could share thoughts about it.

I am reminded of my favourite song, which I would want sung at my funeral, if I wanted a funeral, which I don’t:

Love It Like a Fool by Malvina Reynolds

Baby, I ain’t afraid to die,
It’s just that I hate to say good-bye to this world,
This world, this world.
This old world is mean and cruel,
But still I love it like a fool, this world,
This world, this world.
I’d rather go to the corner store
Than sing hosannah on that golden shore,
I’d rather live on Parker Street
Than fly around where the angels meet.
Oh, this old world is all I know,
It’s dust to dust when I have to go from this world,
This world, this world.
Somebody else will take my place,
Some other hands, some other face,
Some other eyes will look around
And find the things I’ve never found.
Don’t weep for me when I am gone,
Just keep this old world rolling on, this world,
This world, this world.
As Carolyn Heilbrun says…
….which is ironic, because my next post will go as far back as 1982.
My last takeaway to share :
It bothers me no end that Carolyn committed suicide at age 77, only a few years after this book was published. She had planned to do so at age 70 but had found life to be enjoyable after all. No one among her family and friends knows why she did it. The clue to why she did it that I might understand is that “she didn’t want to be a useless person.”
I left out of this long post a few paragraphs about her decision, in her 60s, to get a dog, even though she did not like the idea of getting up early to let the dog out. (I was so lucky that my dog, Bertie Woofter, liked to sleep late as much as I do.) She loved her dog. I wonder if her dog was still alive when Carolyn decided to depart? That seems a significant point that no one mentions. You can read more about it here, including a mention of how much she loved dogs up to her last day on earth. I am sad and mystified. I wish that she had continued to love now and had lived to write another memoir about being in her 80s.

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Although staycation proper doesn’t really begin until I have some steady uninterrupted time at home, I managed, among assorted holiday outings, to get started on my staycation reading. Here are some takeaways.

Toil and Trouble by Augusten Burroughs

In Burroughs’ new memoir about being a witch, I appreciate and relate to all of his words about his chronic anxiety.

and

and

I identify more with his husband, Christopher, when it comes to material possessions.

While describing a book about magick, Burroughs has this to say:

And this is an excellent way to navigate the world:

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

Listening to the album Horses, which I checked out of the library when I was 22 years old, changed the course of my 20s and 30s by setting me on a trajectory toward punk rock. If not for Patti, I might not have met pretty much everyone I knew between age 25 and 35.

Her personal story continues with her third memoir, this one written as she is about to turn 70.

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When I started following Patti’s Instagram, I was pleased to see her still wearing clothing with raggedy sleeves.

I think if her every time I wear my favourite long back sweater with raveled sleeves out of the house to public events.

What she wrote about libraries reminded me of the forty block round trip that I used to walk from my childhood home to the Green Lake branch of the Seattle Public Library.

……

The prevailing theme of the book was the death of two friends, one of them also an ex-lover. I did not know that within a week, I would hear of the death of an old friend and lover of mine. I sort of wish I had read this book right afterward. Clearly, because I saved takeaways on the subject of loss, the subject already spoke to me…a function of age. I knew that fairly soon I would reach the age where friends were dying. I already knew of two, but had not yet lost an old friend whose death sent me reeling. Now I have, but to write about that here would be getting ahead of the narrative flow.

I still keep thinking something wonderful is about to happen.”

Here is an image to keep ourselves hoping, about having seen a performance by Belinda Carlisle (of The Go-Gos) on a telly show.

Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

I read this excellent history book between memoirs.

Something both discouraging and hopeful in our times:

It’s one of the better political books I have read; I recommend it.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Memoirs have become my favourite genre. I haven’t read any of Mary Karr’s, but I will after this book. The Liar’s Club is now on my table in my stack of library books.

One of Karr’s main themes is how to tell the truth. I’m disappointed to read this about Vivian Gornick. I loved her memoir The Odd Woman and the City.

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I want the truth. When I write a blog post, I don’t even like to switch the order of daily jobs to improve the narrative.

But memories are tricky.

One of my first memories is standing in the arched doorway between my grandma’s kitchen and breakfast nook while my step-grandfather, whom I loved and called “Bumpy” for some reason, tried to make my grandmother take a handgun from him. He shouted, “Just take it! Just shoot me!” and I cried, “Bumpy, stop! no!” I see it so clearly…but do I remember it or did Gram tell me about it? My next memory, though, is crystal clear: I am at my uncle’s house, where Bumpy was staying. I was watching him in the mirror while he shaved with tears running down his face through the shaving foam. Later, I understood the story behind the events: he had come home drunk from a fishing trip and had hit her, and she had told him to leave.

On telling the whole painful truth:

On why memoirs are so mesmerizing:

……

Mary Karr has excellent advice on how to use language that gets one as close to the truth as possible, especially when remembering long ago conversations.

Next, and coincidentally related to Patti Smith’s book, a memoir about life after 60.

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The misery of deeply cold weather: I find myself longing for actual spring, for tulips, for roses, irises, peonies, poppies.

I’m reading Dominique Browning’s “Around the House and In the Garden”, a memoir which precedes her wonderful “Paths of Desire.”  Both are about her home, her garden, and recovery from divorce.  I admire her transparency and exposure and am amazed by it and by the fact that I connect with her experiences even though I would have thought that as editor of “House and Garden” her life in a more privileged sphere would have made her foreign to my more humble existence.

While reading her memoir last night, I began to reminisce about my joy in discovering the Stillmeadow and Stillcove memoirs of Gladys Taber.  Not only did Gladys write of gardening and domesticity, but she often waxed more political about war (against) and enviromentalism (for).  Browning clearly defines herself as a strong feminist, a welcome stance in these reactionary times when many young women of my acquaintance don’t realize how old time feminists have forged the rights that make their lives more full of possibilities.

Gladys Taber, from The Book of Stillmeadow, 1948:

“Many simple folk like me are thinking long thoughts this Christmas as we wrap the packages. We are still waiting for peace.  We are insecure, when we have won the war.  Civil conflict exists everywhere, people are still starving.  Labor and Management are embroiled in half the world.  Nations still argue unsolved issues.  Race prejudice snakes along every hidden byway.

“This must not be.  The aggressive instincts have run the world into destruction, culminating in the desperate promise of the atomic bomb that man shall perish from the earth, and the earth from the cosmos.

“What is the answer for us?  The creative instincts, the love force must be nourished with every beat of our hearts until they overbalance the destructive instincts.  And this cannot be accomplished by any great legislation.  It will be the sum of the little people’s feeling.  Good will toward men, that is the answer.  Every mother and every father has the future life of the world in control.  We have got to stop lining up as Fascists, Communists, Laborites, Gentiles, Jews, Negroes and Whites. Somehow, by some divine light, we have got to see ourselves as people, one and all.”

Gladys maintained her outspoken nature through and beyond the Vietnam War and, like Browning, did so despite her visibility as a columnist for a mainstream “home” magazine: in her case, the “Butternut Wisdom” column in Family Circle.   I used as a child to look forward to the day that my Grandmother (another Gladys) would send me to the corner store to buy “our magazines”, Woman’s Day and Family Circle, and”Butternut Wisdom” was always the first page I turned to….a memory which became crystal clear when I read my first Stillmeadow book.

my Gladys Taber bookshelf

About memoirs, Taber wrote: “What most memoirs do for me…is to illuminate the personality of the writer, for this always comes through.  Yesterday may have influenced our tomorrow but we are still individual.  What we feel and think is our own possession.  But the business of living is sharing, so I always want to know all about everything that happened to the people I care for.  Then I feel a small door has been opened and perhaps I may step inside and feel briefly less lonely.”

In earlier adult years, Gladys was not lonely, and lived a life of domestic tranquility with her long time companion, Jill.  After Jill’s death, she wrote “Another Path”, a heart wrenching memoir about loss. I believe that was the beginning of her lonely years.

I wish I could go on to post all the Taber passages which I laboriously typed out from her books, but of course what I must suggest instead is that you seek the books out, even the older one that are out of print, and the amusing novel “Mrs. Daffodil”, a fictionalized story of her life..  (I got them through inter-library loans, and later a dedicated Taber fan sent me some old copies of books, including the rare and precious “Mrs. Daffodil”.) Meanwhile, Dominique Browning’s memoir calls me back to the couch….

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