Summer Diary: Making friends, silver and gold, new and old

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. What happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. In my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts.

Diana Athill first published these words about friendship in The Guardian in 2010 with the title “The Decision.” She was 93 at the time, and the decision refers to the reluctant acknowledgment that she would have to give up a house she loved, and move to a room (of her own, but just one room) in a home for the elderly. It’s not often that we have an autobiographical narrative by a woman of Athill’s age radiating unmistakable joie de vivre. I read the piece in the kind of shock only something new can produce, as an essay collected in Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (2016). I picked up the book by chance from a table in a bookstore this summer while visiting London, drawn in part by the striking portrait of its author on the cover.

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At 75, and already feeling old―a state Athill postponed fully embracing until her nineties–I suddenly saw how much my idea of life in one’s later years has been shaped by my friend Carolyn Heilbrun’s ambivalent stance toward aging. On the one hand, in The Last Gift of Time Carolyn described the singular beauty of feeling life ending―the bittersweet sense of doing some things for the last time in one’s sixties, the joys of being free of the burdens of conventional femininity. But on the other, that frame of mind was made possible only by the conviction that she did not want to advance much further into the life of old age. In fact Carolyn’s perspective on aging depended on the decision―a decision very different from Athill’s―to end her life at some point in her seventies, at 77, as it turned out.

For more than a decade, I’ve lived with Carolyn’s decision to kill herself and its aftermath. I confess that I never fully believed her many unambiguous declarations, published and private, of her intention to commit suicide. A rational suicide still seems implausible to me, and yet it happened. The suicide hangs over my seventies as both warning and invitation. Carolyn was right about so many things. Was she also right about this?

After the cancer diagnosis that inaugurated my seventies, I assumed the disease would make the question moot. I liked the idea that the end of my life would be decided for me. Almost five years later it’s “alive, alive oh.” Much to my surprise (and everyone else’s) the cancer hasn’t yet killed me, so I suppose the question is back on the table–the decision―though it is not foremost in my mind.

What captured my attention in Athill’s reflection on old age had to do with her vision of friendships formed in such late life, for Athill, specifically, in her nineties, with the women in the home. Since I’m not in my nineties, and that decade is not truly on my horizon, what seduced me was the notion she puts forward of “pastness” as forming the basis of friendships made in the perspective of death. I can’t help feeling that in revisiting my friendships in the book I hope to write, I am making “excursions” like those into our past, pasts that seem strangely present to memory. These friendships, of course, are not new ones, but as I return to them, they are renewed, brought back to life.

If Carolyn’s vision of aging was radically different from Athill’s, Athill’s continued pleasure in the changes old age brings reminds me of Colette, another writer who a enjoyed life in all its variety, including growing old and, like Athill, never stopped writing. Colette died at 81 (young compared to Athill). The somewhat autobiographical novel Break of Day, published in her early 50s, carries the tone Athill often adopts when looking back on relationships, and a certain renunciation of sexual life. In the novel, Colette the narrator bids farewell to a man she was in love with, bidding him farewell with a mixture of pleasure, resignation, and nostalgia. He has left, but is he really gone? And is she really alone? It hardly matters. Unlike Athill who never married, Colette met her third husband while creating a novel about how to live after love. What matters is the way Colette conjures the departure of her current lover. She helps him leave by imagining his transformation into many things, but most important, a book still open (livre sans bornes ouvert) and whose boundless pages she might yet fill, an oasis, the novel’s final metaphor, a pause, perhaps a reprieve from an absolute ending.

That is what I wish for my book: that I can still see my friends as they existed in the past, and now continuing with me in memory. They are shifting shape but they are not dead, as long as I write.

A friend commits suicide

“We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each piece, each moment, plays its own game,” Montaigne writes. “And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.” Here is one of those pieces.

Download the essay “A Friend Commits Suicide” (from Feminist Friendship Archive)

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Three’s a charm

Complaining is my default mode, so I thought I’d challenge myself to comment on something unreservedly good on offer this fall season: thrilling books by women writers.

The trilogy by Jane Gardam, starting with Old Filth. Don’t be put off by the title.  Filth is the acronym that sums up the barrister and judge protagonist’s biography: Failed in London Try Hong Kong.
The trilogy―The Neapolitan Novels–by Elena Ferrante, starting with My Brilliant Friend. There are rumors of a fourth volume.
The third volume of Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy, Lila.
The first volume of a projected trilogy by Jane Smiley, Some Luck.

I have no idea why trilogies should be forthcoming from British, Italian, and American women writers this season―though most of the novels have been out and reviewed in the last few years (where have I been? immersed in memoir) and I haven’t caught up with all of them. But the Ferrante (pseudonym―her identity is something of a mystery, at least here) and the Gardam are ravishing. I mean: I was ravished, unable to stop reading, hopeful that the trend is contagious.

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October 9, 2014
11th anniversary of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Sad that she’s missed all these books. An ardent Anglophile, she would especially have loved Jane Gardam’s portrait of aging and England. The painting on the cover of Carolyn’s book is by Vanessa Bell, a painter she much admired. It’s called “The Conversation.” The women are talking to each other, wrapped in intimacy, and there are three of them.

Feminist Friends Forever: Met and Unmet.

Maxine Kumin died last week at age 88. In her typically thoughtful obituary, Margalit Fox highlights Kumin’s long life as a poet, teacher, mother, and friend.

Although I never met Kumin, I did correspond with her briefly when I edited an interview she had done with Diane Middlebrook about Anne Sexton in the early 1980s. Diane―who had been a friend of mine, though not at the time―was researching her biography of Sexton, and spent several hours with Kumin, discussing her relationship with Sexton. It was a famous friendship between two famous poets who met early in their careers.

In the late 1950s Ms. Kumin enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop, where Ms. Sexton was also a student. They became such close friends, and such close readers of each other’s work, that each installed a dedicated phone line in her house on which to call the other. When writing, they left the receivers of the hook; the moment one finished a poem she would whistle into the open line, and the other would come running to hear it, a system that proved a supremely effective forerunner of instant messaging.

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Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin at a meeting of the John Holmes workshop.

Sexton’s suicide in 1974 was shattering for Kumin, but she went on writing poetry, as well as essays, novels, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir.

Diane envied the friendship, and so did my friend Carolyn Heilbrun. Carolyn had admired Kumin for years and would have liked to write a book about her. Kumin demurred. Carolyn described her admiration for Kumin in “Unmet Friends,” an autobiographical meditation from The Last Gift of Time (1997).

For me Kumin has been a woman, vital to my sixties, whom I know in a way no biographer or friend can know her: she is her poems and essays, and what I choose to make of them. At its simplest level, she is what I might have wished to become but never could; her life seems to me a very heaven, intermingling animals and poetry.

During my brief email correspondence with Kumin, I learned that she and Carolyn had dinner together at some point in the Village. Carolyn, moreover, blurbed Kumin’s 2000 memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: “Here is a singular story of survival, an earthly miracle wrought by family devotion, gardens, horses and guts. A compelling read.” I was astonished to learn that Carolyn had finally met her unmet friend.

What we don’t know about our friends!

I (stupidly) did not save our emails, so I cannot recall exactly what Kumin told me about their encounter. Kumin did say, however, that she had been intimidated by Carolyn’s erudition. Since Carolyn had committed suicide not long after that meeting, I asked Kumin whether Carolyn seemed depressed. She said yes.

Toward the end of the obituary, Fox observes that Kumin’s work asks how, how “can one weather the losses life’s course makes inevitable?” For Kumin the answer “lay in the promise of continuity from generation to generation.” And in closing Fox quotes from a poem inspired by one of Kumin’s grandchildren.

So here is where Carolyn’s beliefs diverged dramatically from Kumin’s: Carolyn’s grandchildren, it would seem, did not help her deal with the kinds of losses she had to have felt when she decided to leave the world. Her fantasized identification with the poet ended there.

Are biological generations our only buffer against loss? Without children and grandchildren, I have come to think, or at least hope, that friends themselves―especially our younger friends―also offer that promise of continuity and solace. The value of friendship between women is one of feminism’s most precious gifts, even if in the heat of debate we sometimes forget just how precious it is.

What I Don’t Want to Remember

There are lots of jokes about forgotten anniversaries, usually to reprove husbands who have forgotten the anniversary of their marriage. I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary numerous times, much to the chagrin of my husband. But an anniversary I would rather not remember is the date of Carolyn Heilbrun’s suicide. Today, October 9 as I write, is the anniversary of my friend’s suicide. Actually, it was a Thursday not a Wednesday, but I guess the date is more to the point, though the day seems more real. Carolyn believed in routine, and Thursday was Susan Heath.

I was in England when Carolyn’s great friend Susan Heath called with the news. Thursday was their designated day for dinner, and when Susan arrived at the building for their date she discovered the body. “The journey is over,” Carolyn wrote in the only note we know about, “Love to all.” Carolyn had left little to chance and she had counted on Susan to have the strength to survive the experience.

41Qb2iDjtVLToday I was teaching poems by poets Carolyn loved and admired, even if she had occasional minor quarrels with them―Rich and Sexton. Reading poetry today in the digital age is a heightened experience since we can look at and listen to poets reading their poetry. While looking at the YouTube menu, an interview between Diane Middlebrook and Anne Sexton caught my eye. I couldn’t resist making the students listen to Diane’s voice―we had just read her wonderfully explanatory essay “What Was Confessional Poetry?”―and it seemed appropriate to listen at least briefly.

Slipped into my copy of  Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe, was a fax from Carolyn: CGH to NKM, dated March 19, 1998. It was the closing stanza of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” Beneath the poem Carolyn had handwritten a quotation from The Second Sex in which Beauvoir creates the metaphor of the amazing woman that Rich seems to reprise when she writes–“as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.” Beauvoir’s prose: “she is a helicopter and she is a bird.”

These two friends loved poetry and both are dead, Carolyn by suicide in 2003, Diane from cancer in 2007. Sexton’s suicide links Carolyn and Diane in my mind. Carolyn was an attentive reader of suicide; so was Diane, since she had also written the biography of Plath in her relation to Hughes.

Suddenly, there I was in the classroom looking at bright young faces and feeling very far away, in a place where death was all too real. I did not mention the anniversary to the students because it would not have been an anniversary for them; they had nothing to remember.

For over 20 years, I had dinner with Carolyn. Tuesdays. As each week passes, I remember that I’m not having dinner with Carolyn, or as my husband used to say, “having Carolyn.” That day of the week always seems empty to me.

I’ve picked up the weekly dinner with Victoria Rosner, who had also been Carolyn’s student. Carolyn almost always dines with us.

I wish Carolyn had not felt so alone. I wish she had let time catch up with her. Today she’d have been 87. It’s not, I think now, that old.

Transitions

“It’s not the moves, it’s between the moves.” This was one of those offhand remarks that has stuck in my mind for at least twenty years. I remember the person who said it―an old friend (actually one of the oldest since we met in junior high) the artist Mimi Gross–but I can’t remember the context. Mimi always had a way with those deceptively simple life maxims and this one has proven true on many occasions. I’m between moves―literally―returning from Bogliasco, getting ready to leave for London―and with my writing. But more than the task of repacking what I just unpacked, I have to push myself to get myself going on the work front: to finish proofreading the first pages of my memoir and to begin work on my friendship project (aka my feminist friendship archive). I know I will enjoy the next installment of writing, just as I know I will love being in London again. And yet I’m not moving. I’m on the verge, peering over the edge.

sparrowYesterday morning I woke to hear the frantic cheeping of what turned out to be a tiny sparrow apparently glued to the windowsill outside my bedroom window. For the better part of an hour, I watched the tiny bird look down, hop around itself, ruffle its feathers, receive the visit of a fearless fellow sparrow who would pop in now and then―possibly to share a bit of food, and take off again, doing what comes naturally. But why did my bird stay put? (As always, in these musings, I do not hope for hope for any kind of expertise when it comes to flowers, animals, birds, or indeed anything in nature. I’m just interested in the metaphorical potential of what the outside world provides.) Why would this bird not take the plunge? Fear of heights? A bird? Nothing made sense. And yet ultimately, the sparrow vanished.

So why am I stalled here neither completing the task at hand, nor proceeding to the next? Why am I stuck between the moves at the windowsill of my desk? After all, like the sparrow, I got myself where I am, it’s time to get myself going, get a move on, do what I know what to do. But I don’t seem to be moving.

My friend Carolyn Heilbrun, who like Mimi Gross, loved maxims as explanations for life’s difficult passages, would say on occasions like this, you have to wait for the well to fill up. So maybe, I’m not just stuck, I’m simply waiting.

One more Mimi-ism. This one I can date because the sentence is inscribed at the bottom of a woodcut she made in 1956. “Friends can last forever even if they don’t see each other―if they are friends.” That would be our case. We rarely see each other, but when we do, there is exactly that sense of something still in place―an affinity we call friendship. And if I were smart, I’d put that in my book.

Brooding

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One morning last week when I was walking around the reservoir in Central Park with a friend we came upon these two ducks. The sight stopped us in our tracks. It was slightly odd to see a duck on the jogging track, but this tableau was indeed quite strange since there were two ducks and a single, solitary egg looking abandoned on the other side of the fence quite unattended. What were the ducks doing there? Were they incubating, or, great word, brooding? Why was the egg being neglected?

Based on my cursory reaserch in Wikipedia it might be that the green-headed, yellow-beaked duck was a male–males being more colorful–and the speckled duck, the female. Was the putative mother duck sitting on other eggs? Were these two even a pair? Ducks, according to the same source, are “generally monogamous, though these bonds generally last a single year only.” If my friend and I were to return next week, would the duo still be sitting there?

Walking home I realized that when I heard or used the expression “sitting duck” I never actually pictured a duck. Now, there’s no way I will ever use the expression again without seeing that particular duck sitting on the jogging path.

So much for ducks.

Ever since I’ve returned from Italy, I’ve been brooding, incubating an idea, a useful idea, I hope, about what I’ve been calling my friendship project. Sitting in my my aerie (aka my study) at the Bogliasco Foundation, I suddenly saw that I had entangled two strands of thought that should have been kept separate, or at least distinguished from each other. One line of thought has to do with the elegiac friendship memoir, understanding how it works as a subgenre: a narrative that tells the story of the dead friend. This would complete the collection of my essays on autobiography that I hope to bring out in the near future. The other has to do with elaborating a memoir of my own that will entail revisiting, as it were, my particular dead friends. Naturally, there is overlap in theme but the two projects will be quite different. The academic essays will present an argument about “horizontal” relations between people of the same generation, as distinct from the “vertical” relations with parents. The dead friends book will be a mixed form in which I won’t argue, but rather try to recreate a person, a historical moment, and, above all, a complex set of confusing emotions.

But am I working on either of these projected books, writing any part of them, even though I’m still (for a few more weeks) on sabbatical? No, I’m still incubating my ideas, a euphemistic way of saying that I’m procrastinating.

I’m not ready to write because I’m brooding. I’ve come to recognize that my “dead friends” are not completely dead to me. They live in my dreams, where they talk to me, sometimes in disturbing ways, and the dreams change, even challenge my memory–but not only in dreams. In my waking life conversations, events, books, also change my memory, shift my vision of the friend, or bring back forgotten episodes from the past with their baggage of feeling.

For example. Monday I went to a beautiful memorial service for the feminist editor Mary Thom, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident.

I did not know Mary very well, but I did know her, certainly enough to know how much her motorcycle meant to her, to the shape of her life. When I learned of her death, I immediately recalled that Mary had served as the inspiration for a character that my friend the writer Carolyn Heilbrun had created as Amanda Cross, in one of her detective novels, Honest Doubt.

567029What I remembered was an argument Carolyn and I had had over dinner (sushi, to be precise), soon after the book came out, about the number of times the word “fat” emerged in relation to the first-person narrator of Honest Doubt known as “Woody,” a newly created fictional private investigator. At one point Woody talks to Kate Fansler–Amanda Cross’s gorgeous, pencil thin detective in the other novels–about what being fat means to her, especially as a P.I. “I guess I really wanted her to understand how I felt about this fat stuff,” Woody says. And she goes on to explain her attitude: “Being fat’s been a lot of use to me. You can believe that. It’s gotten me confidences I’d never have had otherwise. But I don’t see why thin has to be a qualification for looking down on others, the way white used to be. I’ve made it a kind of crusade.”

When I read this passage I couldn’t help thinking that Woody sounded almost exactly like Carolyn, who often talked and wrote what it meant to be a fat woman. It was one of her topics. When we discussed the book over dinner, I asked Carolyn why, if she didn’t mind being fat (which she always said she didn’t), did she bring it into the novel so repeatedly? Mildly irritated by my literary faux pas (confusing author with narrator), Carolyn answered that Woody was not a self-portrayal (duh, though Carolyn, of course, would not have said duh) but a fictional character, and if I really had to know, modeled on Mary Thom because she wanted her new detective to get around on a motorcycle, and Mary happened to be fat. The conversation came back to me very clearly when I read the news in the Times.

Toward the end of the memorial, when many friends of Mary had shared their memories, a journalist, Betsy Wade, described having made a trip with Mary Thom, Carolyn, and another woman, to a rugged setting somewhere on the West coast. She said that Mary Thom and Heilbrun, as Wade referred to her, chose not to climb the mountain they had come to climb, but rather to stay put at the bottom, walking and talking for hours (probably about Gloria Steinem whose biography Carolyn was writing at the time). When the novel came out, Wade said, she asked Carolyn whether Mary Thom was the model for Woody. Heilbrun waved her off, saying she couldn’t explain the creative process. That sounded very Carolyn.

I had not expected to hear the anecdote and it brought back vividly the conversations Carolyn and I had every week, almost until her death. We sometimes quarreled, but we both always came back for more.

The story sent me back to the novel, which was published in fall 2000. Carolyn killed herself almost exactly three years later in fall 2003. The book is inscribed to me and signed: Amanda. The inscription evokes our friendship in ways that I confess I took somewhat for granted then. The anecdote told at the memorial had to do with Mary, but what I heard was all about Carolyn. It was amusing and rang true: I could see Carolyn preferring to talk intimately rather than indulge in needless exertion as part of a group effort. But the effect of the story on me was not that: it was to return me to the painful conundrum of those last years, and what, as a friend then I missed, even as I miss her now.